Monday, July 18, 2016

Great Depression -> Great Expression: Art Institute's 'America After the Fall' Rises Beyond Hopper, Wood, etc. -- Art Exhibit Review

Art Exhibition Review

America After the Fall:
Painting in the 1930s
The Art Institute of Chicago
Thru September 18

(Note: Clicking on images will enlarge them.)

I've always been stirred by the contemplative melancholy in the paintings of Edward Hopper, likely my favorite American artist.

So the inclusion of three borrowed Hopper masterworks--as shown nearby--was alone sufficient for me to visit, value and enjoy the Art Institute of Chicago's moderately-sized exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. (The AIC's own, brilliant Nighthawks by Hopper dates from 1942 so wasn't part of the exhibit in the Modern Wing, but is a must-see on any visit to the museum.)

But in addition to a nice curatorial bent--with informative wall text noting how following the stock market crash in 1929 that begat the Great Depression, painters re-examined American values, cast a spotlight on newfound hardships, looked back through depictions of American history and captured rural landscapes, urban entertainments, Dystopian visions and more--what made the exhibit quite worthwhile was the number of fine pieces by artists I'd never heard of, or only little knew.

It is cool that an artist like Grant Wood--who by virtue of his quirky American Gothic (1930) being a mainstay of the Art Institute's permanent collection well may be the first painter many Chicagoland schoolkids come to know--is also represented in the exhibit through at least five less-famed works (at least in these parts).

While patrons may see familiarity in Wood's Daughters of Revolution, works like Young Corn, Fall
Plowing and even the grisly Death on the Ridge Road show that he was just as much--if not more so--a landscape artist as a portraitist.

And although I've always assumed that American Gothic depicted an Iowa farmer and his wife, the placard accompanying the painting in the exhibit informed that the woman is rather the man's daughter.

With noted regional/rural American painters Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry also represented, it was fun to see Wood's landscapes accompanied by the whimsical Erosion No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue, an artist with which I wasn't familiar.

Alexander Hogue, Erosion No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936,
The Philbrook Museum of Art
Similarly, while I relished seeing a Stuart Davis abstract I hadn't seen previously (see below)--even in compiling a fairly in-depth online exhibition about him--and works by Jackson Pollack, Georgia O'Keefe and Ivan Albright, my eyes were opened just as much by several far less known artists.

These included names I knew but whose oeuvres I haven't much surveyed--Marsden Hartley, Reginald Marsh, Archibald Motley, Charles Sheeler, Walt Kuhn--and several that were completely new to me, including:

Paul Cadmus, Federico Castellon, Aaron Douglas, Joe Jones, Helen Lundeberg and William H. Johnson, among others.

Peter Blume, The Eternal City, 1934-39, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
I'll include exhibition pieces by many of these painters below, but one of the works that most beguiled me was The Eternal City by Peter Blume, whose The Rock I've long loved at the Art Institute, but from whom I knew no other paintings.

It's probably hard to tell unless you click to enlarge The Internal City, but along with images of ancient Rome and much else, Blume surrealistically depicts Benito Mussolini as a green-headed Jack-in-the-Box.

Rather than taking up numerous galleries in the Art Institute's Rice Building like most of their major exhibition, America After the Fall fits into the Modern Wing's considerably smaller first-floor exhibition space.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet's In, 1934, U.S. Navy Art Collection
Even those stopping to read all of the thematic and painting-specific explanations should get through all these fine works from the 1930s in an hour or less.

Which makes it about perfect for members to peruse if downtown for other reasons--as I was--or for tourists and other less-frequent visitors to comfortably add onto an exploration of the Art Institute's staggering and diverse permanent collection.

Not only should you get a good sense of the disparate tenors and themes depicted during a time of domestic turmoil between the the World Wars, you should discern that some of the most compelling artists to bring these perspectives to light are those about whom you--perhaps like me--have been kept largely in the dark.

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Federico Castellon, The Dark Figure, 1938, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Helen Lundeberg, Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, 1935, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Reginald Marsh, Twenty Cent Movie, 1936, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Georgia O'Keefe, Cow's Skull: Red, White & Blue, 1931, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Stuart Davis, New York-Paris No. 3, 1931, Private Collection
Jackson Pollack, Untitled, 1938/41, The Art Institute of Chicago
William H. Johnson, Street Life Harlem, about 1939-40, Smithsonian American Art Museum
George L.K.. Morris, Indian Composition No. 6, 1938. Brooklyn Museum
Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn No. 2, 1939-40, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Joe Jones, Roustabouts, 1934, Worcester Art Museum

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