November 02, 2013

America: "Painting a Nation" Exhibition in Art Gallery of NSW


Some amazing paintings for the Art Gallery of NSW to display. These are on loan from the USA and the styles and historical merit are as varied as they are interesting! Another fine example of western cultural heritage.

WHEN a handful of British critics poured scorn on the survey of Australian art on display at London's Royal Academy, the Art Gallery of NSW took note. 

Sydney's pre-eminent public art museum too has staked its summer programming on a single-nation survey with America: Painting a Nation.

And, as with the Australia exhibition in London, America is being positioned as the most important collection of art from a single nation to be exhibited in the host country.

The curatorial consultant for the show, Chris McAuliffe, admits distilling the complexities of the most important nation in our region into a single art exhibition is a risky proposition, not to mention ambitious.

"But I think this one is on slightly safer ground than Australia because there's going to be something people haven't understood before, an emphasis on regionalism," he says.

"People think of the US and forget they had a French history, a Spanish history and a German history, and life in Texas is very different from life in Boston."

Painting a Nation will home in on American art from before the Declaration of Independence to the outbreak of World War II, with a few post-war exceptions. It gives modern photography, contemporary art and the pop art movement a wide berth because all have been reasonably well exhibited in Australia before.

"The interesting thing for us is this exhibition is shaped by four lenders who have worked very carefully together," McAuliffe says.

The 80 paintings in the exhibition come from three art galleries and the Chicago-based philanthropic Terra Foundation for American Art, which funds art education and boasts a niche collection dating from American colonisation through to 1945. 
The three galleries are the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has one of the oldest and largest art collections in the US, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, which has a smaller collection expanded since its foundation in 1900, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which, like Canberra's National Gallery of Australia, is a young, cashed-up institution that has amassed a vast collection in the less than 50 years since it was founded.

Three simple principles will govern how the works are hung, McAuliffe says. "It is chronological, there's a neat internal narrative and they are interested in speaking about the diversity of American experience.

"In essence it begins with the Atlantic colonies in the 18th century, it moves across the continent and there's a couple of Californian artists in the final room."

Among the showstoppers in Painting a Nation is Edward Hopper's House at Dusk, painted seven years before his best-known canvas, Nighthawks. 

Jackson Pollock's 56.4cm x 56.4cm No 22,  will show Australians familiar with Blue Poles that the abstract expressionist didn't restrict himself to huge canvases. Mark Rothko's Gyrations on Four Planes reveals to those who are only superficially aware of the artist, who paints mainly plain planes, that he also sometimes painted, well, gyrations on planes.


Where Pollock, Rothko, Hopper and the pioneering American cubist Max Weber were part of the post-war New York art establishment, this exhibition is most concerned with the length and breadth of America before the pre-eminence of New York.(Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

With his dark-rimmed reading glasses and Fitzroy-esque drawl, McAuliffe is a master of making art accessible. America is the most ambitious exhibition he has been involved with, after a background in academia and as director of the University of Melbourne's Ian Potter Museum of Art. He is eager to put enough known landmarks in this exhibition so that Australian audiences will step from the familiar into the unknown.

"We know Australians are very interested in America, if you look at the Bureau of Statistics data, literally hundreds of thousands visit America every year, but the bulk of what Australian audiences have seen is the triumph of American painting," he says.

The history of American art exhibitions in Australia has been patchy but when good shows were staged they attracted heavy foot traffic. By way of example, McAuliffe cites "previous touring exhibitions from the Guggenheim, MoMA [the Art Gallery of Western Australia is now staging a six-part Museum of Modern Art series], even going back to the Two Decades of American Painting show [put on in 1967 by the National Gallery of Victoria]".

The NGA's best known work for more than four decades now has been Blue Poles, he says, "then they've got Kooning, Rothko, Warhol ... So we know a lot of Australian audiences have seen a lot of that and we thought, let's give them the backstory."

While this exhibition was assembled in the US and has already been exhibited in South Korea en route to Sydney, it has been tweaked for local audiences by McAuliffe and AGNSW director Michael Brand, who spent a decade running art museums in the US before his return to Australia last year.

McAuliffe was brought on after having resigned from the Potter last year, not long after his return from a year as visiting professor of Australian studies at Harvard.

He brings to the task not only a recent immersion in the US but also a lifetime spent studying that nation's artistic output. McAuliffe's doctorate from Harvard, completed more than two decades ago, examined the emergence of postmodernism in American art from 1960 through the 1990s, which is somewhat ironic given that material is explicitly not covered by this exhibition.

Having established the time frame, how then do the curators create a narrative through the works? The Royal Academy exhibition in London ostensibly was supposed to be about landscape but less was made of that line as the exhibition came to fruition.

"You let the artists do the talking," McAuliffe says. The pictures in Painting a Nation reveal attempts by the artists to explore national identity and to understand American experience.

"Whether you've got someone like [self-taught figurative painter] Winslow Homer, who is very much a painter of everyday life in the 19th century, or Stuart Davis, who is a 20th-century artist trying to understand what radio and neon lights and jazz mean, they're still essentially grasping after the meaning.

"So the interesting thing for me is the extent to which the paintings aren't making these emphatic declarations about 'This is America': some are trying to find that, but in some paintings there's considerable scepticism, you get the sense of the artist saying, listen, I can't tell you what America is but I can tell you what it's like to live on a farm in Texas.

"So as one point, in one of the signage panels I use this comment from the American philosopher John Dewey, who said in the 1920s, 'locality is the only universal'. He was actually talking about American newspapers, saying, isn't it funny when you leave the big city what counts as news in a newspaper is entirely different? It's a roundabout way of saying the solution that artists come up with is saying, I cannot make a painting of America in its entirety but I can tell you what it's like to live in this town."

The challenge then is to hang the works so they speak to each other and have context.

In the third room of the exhibition McAuliffe has hung Charles Willson Peale's 1772 Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their Daughter Anne (below). 
The Philadelphian family portrait reveals the mercantile wealth of the area at the time but it also reveals their ambition, aspiration and lingering connections to an aristocratic culture in England. 

Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their Daughter Anne (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. From the exhibition America: Painting a Nation, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, from November 8 to February 9. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Moving directly into the next room, there are a number of small, modest paintings of everyday life in the regions positioned to illustrate historical expansion and regional evolution.
"Social structures grew up, not just a mercantile aristocracy but agrarian activity; you see the morality change, a move away from status and prestige towards republican virtue, honest labour, hard work," McAuliffe says. "There are very few instances where the message is written in capital letters, but subtly throughout the show you can see the way the territory's shifting, beliefs and attitudes are shifting, even the ways their bodies are carried.

"There is a sequence of portraits by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, all from the 1880s, 1890s, and the figures are just so forthright, they really reach out at you and give a sense of a certain American character."

Australian visitors steeped in contemporary American culture will be struck by the history evoked in Painting a Nation. Although we share a language and the Pacific Ocean with the US, and both nations were colonised by the British within 200 years of each other, our foundations are very different.

McAuliffe notes a "quiet moment" in the early rooms of 18th-century pieces where viewers will likely notice the refinement and elegance of the portraits.

"It's so different from an Australian assumption of what a colonial experience was, but then you go into the next room and Thomas Moran's painting of the Grand Canyon is cinemascopic in scale and you just get this sense of how awesome they found the scale of the territory," he says.

Then, as viewers move through they will envelop themselves in what he describes as his own "knock your socks off moments" around works by Georgia O'Keeffe where she moves from New York to Texas to New Mexico and "just falls in love with the desert". It showcases an artist very deliberately attempting to communicate through her painting what it's like to be in that space.

America is Michael Brand's first major curatorial initiative and it's one of a number of signals the Sydney gallery is looking for closer ties to its Pacific neighbour.

And in a twin shift from last year, when Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art hosted an Anish Kapoor survey while the AGNSW examined Francis Bacon, the MCA's summer exhibition is a peek at the output of Yoko Ono.


No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa Chief (1832-33) by Henry Inman, above. From the exhibition America: Painting a Nation, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, from November 8 to February 9. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

By Michael Bodey

America: Painting a Nation is at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney from November 8 to February 9.

Article and images with many thanks to The Australian

Picture credit for Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon: Pacific Arts.

There is an example of his work similar to this on display.

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