These artists practiced what they taught at CMU
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Art teachers are often the first to be cut when public schools face budget crises, as they do now in Pennsylvania. A new exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, "They Practice What They Teach: Artist Faculty of Carnegie Institute of Technology," reveals the depth of that loss.
The exhibit collects work of 15 artists who taught at the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. The adjacent gallery of work by Hubert J. FitzGerald, who studied with many of these teachers, highlights their impact on students' growth as artists -- and a perusal of the exhibition quickly proves these teachers taught more than art.
Everett Warner's industrial cityscapes showing the green Monongahela River studded with light, smoke billowing from factories and mills, are a lesson in Pittsburgh history, as is William Charles Libby's "The Day Pittsburgh Was Born" (1958), commissioned for the bicentennial of the French and Indian War.
"They were here teaching, but they grew to love the surroundings, and painted them," curator Barbara Jones said.
The city's history is recorded in precise local detail in Clarence Carter's "Pittsburgh Hill District" (1940), Roy Hilton's "Steel Works in Winter" (not dated) and "The Miner" (1936), Norwood Hodge MacGilvary's "Pittsburgh" (1928), Samuel Rosenberg's "Job Lists" (1938) and Raymond Simboli's "Steel Mill" (1950) and "Pittsburgh Factory Scene" (c. 1945).
Robert Gwathmey's scenes of African-American life in the South provide stark Social Realist commentary, as does the visible shift in Mr. Rosenberg's work at the time of the Holocaust. Works like "Bread No. 1" (1942) a scene of anguished, emaciated figures painted by the Jewish artist during his "stained glass period," are intensely colored and stylized, marred by heavy black lines. Mr. MacGilvary's Surrealist "Here & Elsewhere," painted during World War II, shows a globe patched by fire in Europe and the Pacific.
Collected, these works show that art teachers also can teach politics, history, sociology and psychology.
"The public schools are really losing out, because art is, in these economic times, the first thing to get cut," Ms. Jones said. "These kids are missing out on how art can create change. It has a vital role in today's society and always has."
Still, she didn't assemble the exhibit with any political agenda.
"What I did have in mind was the idea of celebrating artists as teachers, because so many artists do take on teaching," Ms. Jones said.
At Carnegie Tech, teachers created their own artwork on a top floor with abundant natural light. They opened these studios to their pupils.
The exhibition subtly conveys that these teachers were closely connected with one another as well as with their students. Near the work of Russell Twiggs, whom Ms. Jones called "our true Abstract Expressionist of the group," hangs a black-and-white photograph of a portrait of the artist painted by Mr. Rosenberg.
Mr. Twiggs never finished his degree and didn't serve as a professor. Instead, he remained involved in this academic institution that was also an artistic community by laying out student work to be critiqued. He also held a top-floor studio and dispensed advice to students.
Today's Carnegie Mellon School of Art is part of the university's College of Fine Arts, which also encompasses the schools of architecture, design, drama and music. The university began as Carnegie Technical Schools in 1905 and started to offer arts curricula in 1912, when it became the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
Andy Warhol, who graduated in 1949, worked with several artists showcased in the exhibition, Ms. Jones said. He was particularly close with Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Twiggs' wife, Loreen, who was secretary to the head of the department of painting and design. When Carnegie faculty wanted to suspend Mr. Warhol after his freshman year because his work didn't pass muster, Mrs. Twiggs and Mr. Rosenberg defended him, suggesting he be allowed to attend summer school. The other teachers gave in. That fall, they evaluated the drawings he produced that summer and let him remain.
Ms. Jones decided to compile this exhibit after creating another on Mr. Rosenberg, the subject of her book, "Samuel Rosenberg: Portrait of a Painter" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).
"It was intended to replicate the years of the 20th century," Ms. Jones said of the exhibit's organization by artist, running the stylistic gamut from Mr. Warner's Impressionist snow scene "Mountain Laurel and Black Alders" (not dated) to Balcomb Greene's playfully abstract, minimalist "Organic Forms" (1939).
The Westmoreland had "a very tight budget" for the show, Ms. Jones said, and work by these artists was easy to find locally. Some works were already in the museum's collection. Some are on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Art and others are from the collection of nearby Greater Latrobe High School, which has for decades bought a new artwork at the end of each school year.
One of these is a portrait by Mr. Simboli of his son and his teammates in football uniforms, "Young Athletes" (1940). It hangs beside his haunting "Steel Mill," which seems at first to show a burning city. In fact, the plumes of white smoke and dappled orange light signify a factory, reflected imperfectly and beautiful in the still river below.
A brighter depiction of Pittsburgh industry that evokes Russian Futurism in its admiration for clean, swift machinery is Robert Lepper's "Study for the mural at the Mineral Industries Building, West Virginia University" (c. 1940). The expansive work, 921/2 inches wide, depicts trappings of the glass, steel, oil, gas and coal industries in bright pastel. Three small human figures crouch at corners, playing supporting roles to their machines.
The mural study fascinates the eye with its complexity. Mr. Lepper's attention to every detail in the busy scene -- beams, cogs and rooftops -- makes this a vivid portrait of a city and exemplifies the interest these artists took in Pittsburgh.
It's fitting that the resulting mural is still at WVU, a constant reminder to students of the rich local culture and history they prepare to inherit. In 1996, the Westmoreland Museum changed its name to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, affirming its devotion to the task of chronicling a people.
First Published July 31, 2011 12:00 am