America: Painting a Nation
America: Painting a Nation is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 8th November 2013 – 9th February 2014.
At a time when historians are increasingly displacing nation-building as the purpose for knowing the past, it could seem a retrograde step to make this the foundation principle through which to showcase important works of art. Nevertheless, an exhibition organised around the concept of Painting a Nation immediately provokes questions about meaning and definitions that may not have simple answers. Approaching the exhibition as a historian of the United States and its art, I was mindful of the question former Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes asked: ‘What can you learn about America by looking at its art?’ The answer found here is, unfortunately, nothing of depth.
It is valuable to have these questions prompted: what was the nation and what does it mean to paint it? It would therefore be equally valuable to have these questions posed within the exhibition. Did artists ask this question and how did they answer it? How did that answer change over 200 years? Here the exhibition was less than successful. It presents a familiar, predictable narrative, an uncritical construction of the nation’s art history, an unchallenging view of what that history was. In short, America: Painting a Nation is disappointingly (heartbreakingly) bland.
Bringing together over eighty works and some of the best-known names in twentieth-century art history (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe) this is an intentional blockbuster. It ranges over 200 years of painting, from the portraiture of the late colonial period to the post-World War II years. The organisation is historical, in four broad themes. It includes most of the major movements—the Hudson River School, American genre, the Ashcan School, Modernism—and culminates in Abstract Expressionism as the ‘ultimate expression’ of American art.
Exploring ‘Painting a Nation’ is at its best in the romantic wilderness landscapes of Thomas Cole, and Frederick Church, where the idea of the sublime met with the new republic’s Manifest Destiny to conquer the continent. William Smith Jewett, The Promised Land—the Grayson Family (1860) (Fig. 1) conveys the grandeur of this Promised Land and the destiny of settlers to claim their right to it. The theme is continued in the nostalgic representations of Native Americans. Their haunting sense of loss and doom which accompanied westward progression across the continent begins with Cole’s Last of the Mohicans (1823). It finds expression in the solitary figure dominantly alone in the bleak beauty of the landscape in Frederic Remington’s Herd Boy (1905) (Fig. 2) and the dispossession suggested by N.C. Wyeth Moving Camp (1908). In between there are the ethnographic portraits. No-Tin (Wind) a Chippewa Chief (1832–33) (Fig. 3) by the lesser known Henry Inman, is an example of how recording and documenting the diminishing tribes was part of defining what the nation was becoming.
The exhibition follows a similar trajectory of travelling west to California, to be inclusive of west coast artists like Otis Oldfield whose study of his student, Portrait of Yun Gee (1926) also captures the ethnic diversity of the west coast art community. This, however, simply highlighted the problem of perspective. The inclusion of Georgia O’Keefe’s two works Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose (1931) and Two Cala Lilies on Pink (1928) (Fig. 4) during her New Mexico period, are significant because O’Keeffe did attempt to paint an ‘American’ art and she went west to do it.
It is more questionable whether ‘painting the nation’ is apt for artists like Mark Rothko whose only connection to painting ‘America’ is that he lived within the borders of the continental United States. Equally problematic is the inclusion of Mary Cassatt, who was born there but who subsequently lived her entire adult life painting in Europe. What is ‘American’ or ‘national’ about Cassatt’s many explorations of the sensual relationship between mothers and their children, shown here in Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880) (Fig. 5)?
Clearly geographic locality is not what makes these works American. Most artists indeed were not narrowly ‘American’. They travelled to Europe, were often although not invariably trained in European art schools, were working in a cosmopolitan conversation with European art movements, shown very clearly in Childe Hassam’s Rainy Midnight (late 1890s) (Fig. 6). This point is made in the accompanying wall labels and catalogue, but is not immediately apparent in the selection, quantity and juxtaposition of the display. It would have been enriching to see how this conversation played out with more specific demonstration of European ideas and technique with American interpretation. To do this might have involved selecting other works or it might have involved a more explicit arrangement hanging the works of artists like Max Weber and Robert Henri.
Organising historically requires asking historical questions. Most notably absent from the works chosen for this exhibition is the question of who was painting the nation. The overwhelming majority of the works here are by men, white men, largely of northern European descent, mainly from the east coast. While this might be unavoidable for the eighteenth century, it becomes very conspicuous by the late nineteenth century and John Singer Sargent’s wonderful portrayals of the upper-class establishment. O’Keeffe was acutely aware she was a woman painting in a man’s world.
This bias could reflect the curator’s reliance on specific (only four) US galleries, the past collecting practices of those art galleries, and the well-documented difficulties artists who were African-American, or women, had in getting their work exhibited in the period before the 1970s. To have this exclusion unselfconsciously replicated here is at best to present a narrow limited definition (whose nation?); at worst it is to recreate a nationalist sentiment disturbing in its implications. The very few works by African-American artists—Jacob Lawrence’s Bar-b-que (1942) and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s portrait of his mother (1897)—is a signal to be aware there are many more works that could have challenged the perspective of a single ‘national’ experience.
An exhibition of American painting without Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins would be unthinkable. How these artists were also exploring questions of gender difference in portrayals of ninetenth century white rural and urban masculinity is captured in Homer’s A Huntsman with Dogs (1891) and Eakins’ Sailing (1875). From the eighteenth-century portraits, to Robert Henri’s Edna (1915) (Fig. 8) and Milton Avery’s Adolescence (1947), women and girls are more frequently the subject of the works than they are the creators. So it is important to see Lee Krasner’s Blue and Black (1951–53) on display, showing how she effectively employed colour in contrast to Jackson Pollock’s dramatic action piece No. 22 (1950) (Fig. 9). The inclusion of Miki Hayakawa’s stunning Portrait of a Negro (1926) (Fig. 8) similarly serves to demonstrate the work of women modernists, and modernism’s exploration of racial diversity.
It is always a pleasure to come upon an unexpected work. John Sloan’s 3 a.m. (Fig. 10) is neither Sloan’s best, nor his best-known, work. Its importance in the history of representations of women’s working experience however, gives considerable weight to this as a work to be studied seriously. Sloan’s warm, sympathetic treatment of a sex worker marked a departure from previous works and shocked traditionalists. Its inclusion in this particular exhibition was welcome but unexpected because I hadn’t known it was there before arriving, and surprising because this is not an exhibition that undertakes to explore the serious subjects of US history.
For a historian the context for the works displayed is paramount and is where the exhibition was singularly lacking. Where is the recognition of the ideas that recent scholars have explored, such as the role that Abstract Expressionism played in the Cold War? That artists like Pollock were actually engaging critically with America’s politicisation of art and culture during that period? That women artists were crucial to Modernism? That genre painters in the mid-nineteenth century like Eastman Johnson were active abolitionists, engaging with slavery, the most divisive debate in the nation’s history? That Thomas Hart Benton and other Regionalists were painting for the political campaign to oppose lynching? Or that African-American artists had a distinctive way of portraying racialised experience and the night life of jazz and blues?
It is perhaps too easy to concentrate only on what’s missing but given the title of the exhibition it is hard not to notice and to wonder about the absence of the obvious. Where were the big events that shaped the existence of the nation – the Revolution, the establishment of the republic, the Civil War? Or those that fuelled and shaped its subsequent growth – business and technological ingenuity, mass immigration? Where is the artistic response to Wall St.’s power and crash, the emergence of an organised women’s movement, and the nation’s dropping of the Atomic Bomb? These particularly American experiences have all been subjects of an art that is distinctive, powerful and compelling.
Overall the exhibition as a history is more like a high school text book, oversimplified, over glossed, unchallenging and unexciting, when it might have been an informative and literally eye-opening experience. It needed a greater recognition of the divisiveness within the national narrative, the xenophobia which accompanied the influx of European people and their ideas, the vitality of the industrialized cities, the resilience found within communities of African-Americans and native Americans, and attention to Hispanic America as well as the Anglo national identity.
In its adoption of its particular narrative of the United States, the exhibition elides the problem of conflict, contestation, and diversity of views that have shaped a continuing conversation of what it is to be American and how the United States has recreated and redefined itself. In vain I sought recognition of the complexity within the theme, a knowledge that the question had been posed, a discernment that creative expression emerges from resistance and tensions, indeed, as African-American bell hooks has so ably argued, why art matters.
Perhaps it is too much to expect that a summer blockbuster for a touring or holidaying public should be more thoughtful and insightful, or show art that includes the full multicultural cosmopolitan experience let alone include works that might actively subvert the idea of an ‘American’ art. Is it however too much to expect care and coherence in the choice of works and the arrangement of their hanging, to explore how national memory-making and making art go hand-in-hand, rather than rely uncritically on taking what is offered? No doubt many will find the exhibition worth a visit, and so they should. There is some wonderful work on show. But are the Australian public really so uneducated about US history that they will be satisfied by what is presented? Perhaps it is a test for something more to come.
© Diane Kirkby 2013