Art review: Westmoreland show highlights American realist works from the Depression to World War II
"Barn Dance," by Clyde Singer.
"Mill Town in Winter" by Ernest Fiene.
Charles Burchfield, "In Memoriam"
Henry Koerner, "Resurrecting a Ship."
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During the 1930s and '40s, a depression, world war, indus- trial expansion, labor unrest and familial and societal disruptions provided bountiful material for artists who were also experiencing bombastic change within their own profession.
Those dynamic, albeit harrowing, decades inform the 48 paintings of "Modern Dialect: American Paintings From the John and Susan Horseman Collection" at Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
This thoroughly engaging, if dark, exhibition was organized by the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., where Mr. Horseman serves on the board. Subjects range from a lone, worn Detroit street "Sweeper," by Jack Keijo Steele, to the energetic farmers of "While the Sun Shines (Haying)" by John Stockton de Martelly.
Alienation and loss reside in many works, including Akron native Raphael Gleitsmann's "House at Sunset, Medina County," set against a snowy lawn and flaming sky, fronted by a wireless telephone pole and railroad tracks absent trains. The bulky Victorian, painted around the time the U.S. entered World War II, is a near-silhouette with one lit window, perhaps a beacon for a loved one serving overseas or an indicator of a family member kept awake by worry.
Charles Burchfield's "In Memoriam" of 1936, an unkempt graveyard with fallen stones, seems to reflect the ongoing economic malaise, the gray skies predicting no immediate change in conditions.
The title of Walter Wellington Quirt's "The Future Belongs to the Workers" is optimistic, but imagery of a dead striker, a laborer's funeral parade and a lynching victim being tended by a crowd rallying under a communist flag indicates that prize won't come without struggle and pain.
Robert Tindall's "Winged Victory," which was displayed in the Carnegie Institute's 1941 "Directions in American Painting" exhibition, is a poignant commentary on the mythology of war versus the reality. Rather than the victorious, striding "Nike of Samothrace," popularly known as "Winged Victory," the image is of a helmeted skull, upon which a small bird perches, lying untended among fallen leaves.
Dixon director Kevin Sharp implies that even joyful events are born of desperation, as he skillfully weaves into his essay on Depression-era American painting passages from John Steinbeck's period novel "The Grapes of Wrath."
"Despite or perhaps because of their impoverished circumstances, drifting Americans hungered for simple and familiar entertainments -- a movie, a twist of tobacco, a drink of whiskey," he writes.
Ohio painter Clyde Singer's exuberant "Barn Dance" -- which was exhibited in the 1938 Carnegie International -- greets exhibition visitors, the contrived nature of its warm release accentuated by the young man, foreground, who stands with hand on a drape as though about to pull a stage curtain. Reginald Marsh's urban residents, in contrast, are almost colorless as they mill about a movie theater showing the English film "Mad Men of Europe."
Marsh and Burchfield are among well-known artists represented in the exhibition, which also includes an atypical George Bellows, a small Marsden Hartley and a gripping George Ault. Of particular local interest is an early Henry Koerner, the late artist having divided his time between Pittsburgh and his native Vienna.
John and Susan Horseman began collecting about 10 years ago, and their area of expertise is American art of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. An earlier Dixon-organized show focused on American Scene paintings. "What I love about their collection is that they mined the layers of American art and found lesser names, but that doesn't matter. There are very very good painters here, and he has a very good eye. This exhibition will bring some of the recognition these artists deserve," said Westmoreland chief curator Barbara Jones.
The period also saw turmoil in the art world, as realism gave way to surrealism and abstraction, both of which are represented. While surrealism more obviously lent itself to probing subconscious effects of social unrest, abstract artists were looking for alternatives.
"[American Abstract Artists president Balcomb] Greene and his colleagues asserted that while Social Realism as a movement served a purpose, their purpose was to create an art that provided an escape from the problems exposed by that style, by transporting the viewer to a different world, so to speak, where narrative disappears and only form, space, color and line remain," wrote Dixon associate curator Julie Novarese Pierotti in her catalog essay.
When asked in a catalog interview whether the collector received inspiration from the art hung in his offices, Mr. Horseman answered: "The financial world is chaotic. One of the primary benefits of having the art in the office is the sense of calmness it can provide in the face of instability." He cited as relaxing Carl Gaertner's "Second Floor, Back," two working-class women and a child talking on an adjoining porch in early evening. Then, referencing the complexity of decision-making regarding his clients' investments, he said he enjoys "seeing how artists, such as George L.K. Morris in his [abstract] 1941 work 'Composition,' approach and solve problems in different ways ... As I puzzle out his process, the painting actually inspires me to think more creatively." Both works are exhibited here.
"As we open 'Modern Dialect' ... the American economy has yet to fully recover, unemployment remains high, and the prospects for significant improvement in our standards of living still seem faraway at best," Mr. Sharp writes.
... "In the 1930s, [exhibition artists] and others produced works of art that spoke to similar frustrations and justifiable anger. It will be fascinating to see what museum goers in 2012 and beyond think about the works in 'Modern Dialect'."
The annual Indiana County Potters Studio Tour will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Nine studios, some with additional guest potters, will participate. Information: www.potterstour.com or 724-286-9741.
The "Marcellus Shale Documentary Project" at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, North Oakland, features images by six exceptional photographers. Next week, I'll write about the show, but a heads- up: A free, public community forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25 to discuss all sides of the industry (412-681-5449).
Four years ago, a bunch of design professionals launched a 30-day pre-election email and Internet poster campaign in support of Barack Obama. They're at it again, with equally impressive daily mailings such as Reason 08, "Prisoners of Capital," by Chaz Maviyane-Davies. Join the mailing list at email@example.com. If you know of a similar project supporting the GOP candidate, let me know. I'll give it "equal time."
First Published October 17, 2012 12:00 am