The Figure in American Art Essay

John Briggs,  Swimmer #7 , 1982, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

John Briggs, Swimmer #7, 1982, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

The first of many forthcoming exhibitions showcasing the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College’s latest acquisitions, The Figure in American Art offers but a mere introduction to the Museum’s newest permanent collection works. This inaugural exhibition of the alliance between the Polk Museum and Florida Southern highlights one of the principal collecting initiatives fostered by the partnership: to develop a collecting focus that specifically addresses the “figure” as a subject unto its own in American painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture.

As a result, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College will be the first museum in America to offer a permanent collection whose central focus is works of art pertaining particularly to the human figure in American art.

The idea for developing such a collection celebrating American figuration was formulated by FSC graduate J. William Meek, III (’72) of Naples, Florida who has been director-owner of the oldest gallery for American art in the Southeast United States, the Harmon-Meek Gallery, since 1978. Prior to 1978, he was Assistant Director for Harmon Gallery founder Foster Harmon starting in 1972. Meek has curated and loaned approximately 250 exhibitions of American art at 90 museums in 27 states since 1980 and earned a MA in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University in 2000. He has lent more than 15 exhibitions to the Melvin and Burks Gallery at FSC since 1980. Meek has proceeded with contacts to artists and estates of artists he represents at his gallery as well as certain collectors he knows regarding gifts of works of art which conform to the theme.

Applying the term “figuration” broadly, the future collection will cover the full artistic spectrum: from initial studies in pencil and charcoal to finished paintings, prints, and sculpture. It will demonstrate a myriad of ways in which the human form has been used as a subject from detailed realism to Abstract Expressionism, and from the roots of early American portraiture to today’s Neo-Realism. Aspects of the figure can range from full-scale portraits to minute figures in the distance of a large landscape.

Since the time frame of the Harmon-Meek Gallery’s specialization starts with American artists in the 1920s and runs to the present, the first works being donated and to be featured in The Figure in American Art follow that lead. The earliest artist to appear in the exhibition will therefore be Adolf Dehn (1895- 1968). Dehn currently has an exhibition of Manhattan subjects from 1935 to 1965 at the Fairfield University Art Museum in Connecticut, which will later travel to the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. A major book is soon to be released by the Artist Book Foundation about this same subject, written by Dr. Philip Eliasoph. A second book, about the artist’s entire life, will be published by a Midwest university press in 2018 by Dr. Henry Adams. Dehn’s works are in the permanent collections of more than 80 art museums.

For the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College’s permanent collection, the artist’s estate is donating about 100 works in casein tempera, lithography, watercolor, and drawing dating from an early student drawing when he was 16 (1911) until 1967, a year before his death. The collection will consequently feature a complete retrospective of more than 80 prints of the 650 he created from 1922 to 1967.

At the other end of the spectrum, to be featured in The Figure in American Art and in the permanent collection is another “survey” collection coming from a contemporary American artist, Richard Segalman (b.1934-). Segalman, who resides in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York, has been a figurative artist his entire life. He is gifting one collection of 25 black and white monoprints, which were recently honored by a book of that subject published also by the Artist Book Foundation. He started in 1990, creating the unique works of art via a printing method that produces a single image. In addition, the artist is donating 35 works in watercolor, oil, pastel, and color monoprint, which will make the Museum the home of the artist’s largest museum collection. He is also represented in 60 other art museum collections.

Other depression-era artists coming to the Polk Museum at Florida Southern’s expanding collection include Herman Maril (1908-84), Will Barnet (1911-2012), Jon Corbino (1905-64); Eliot O’Hara (1890-1969), and Darrel Austin (1907-94), and Byron Browne (1907-61), a selection of whose works will appear in the summer exhibition. Artists following in the WWII era and Post-War era include the sculptor Milton Eltihng Hebald (1917-2016), Balcomb Greene (1904-90), Walter Meigs (198-88), and Robert Vickrey (1926-2011). Contemporary American artists entering the collection include Hunt Slonem (b.1951-), who had a solo exhibition four years ago at the Polk Museum; William Entrekin, who has a granddaughter attending Florida Southern presently; watercolorist Timothy Clark, who just became the president of the Art Students League of New York; Richard Haas, former president of the National Academy of Design in New York, and whose work was shown at Florida Southern’s Melvin & Burks Galleries last year; Jenness Cortez; Laura Shechter; Joan Konkel; Philip Morsberger; Bob Kane (1937-2012); Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso; Reynier Llanes, who escaped Cuba on a small boat ten years ago; Josef Levi; Julio de Diego; Jessica Daryl Winer; Plant City artist John Briggs; among others.

The human form - rendered realistically, abstractly, or even metaphorically - has been the central element that has connected art across time, and, as The Figure in American Art strives to illustrate, the theme presents an endless font for artistic and viewer consideration. Accordingly, this new collecting focus strives to elevate the Museum, making it and Lakeland, a go-to source for American art. This summer, visitors to The Figure in American Art will get a glimpse at a growing collection whose uniqueness celebrates not only the new alliance between the Polk Museum and Florida Southern College, but also the unique strengths of the community at large.