America/American

THE SEARCH FOR AN “AMERICAN’ ART

America|American exhibition, 2018

America|American exhibition, 2018

In most official art historical accounts of American art, it is not until the 1940s that American art found and identifiable home-grown style with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. Prior to the end of World War II, Paris had been the center of the art world from the late seventeenth century forward. From Rococo and Neoclassicism to Impressionism and Cubism, it seemed practically every new style grew out of French experimentation. Other European nations laid claim to Expressionism (Germany), Futurism (Italy), Suprematism (Russia), but American art – while making exciting modern strides – struggled to find a definitive form to call its own. There was no native Americanist art style or movement.

Yet, somehow we often seem to recognize and “American” work of art when we see it. An Andy Warhol screenprint – like his Cow (Yellow and Pink), c. 1966 – is immediately recognizable as an American work of art. But why? Is it because we approach it with the most inescapable foreknowledge that is by Andy Warhol, the most quintessential of American artists? Or is there something in the image itself – and perhaps in Warhol’s entire practice of producing art grounded in popular culture – that speaks to the American psyche? Why, too, do any of Kathryn Freeman, Richard Segalman, or Will Barnet’s timeless scenes of figures in moments of leisure seem so utterly American? Would we sense they were scenes of America if we did not already know they were by American artists or presented in this show? It is difficult to put one’s finger on an explanation.

THE DIVERSITY OF “AMERICAN” ART

While defining what makes a specific work “American” or a specific artist “American” is complicated in itself, America/American also explores what America, its people, and its landscapes look like. America is a melting-pot of cultures, genders, and ethnicities, and here we seek to present a diverse look at the American scene and American artistic production. The show does so from the vantage point of both the twenty-first century, with recently acquired pieces by Asian-, Cuban-, and African-American artists, like Michiko Fowler, Raynier Llanes, and Radcliff Bailey, and the previous century by artists like Jasper Johns, Alice Neel, Lorna Simpson, Ansel Adams, Arshile Gorky, Robert Vickrey, and Adolf Dehn.

Some artists, although foreign-born, have become inseparable from the history of American art itself. Alfred Eisenstadt, born in Germany in 1898, captured what is arguably the most famous photographic image in American history: that of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day in 1945. In our exhibition, his 1936 photograph of a by selling Coca-Cola in Atlanta is no less emblematically American. Likewise, Arshile Gorky (c. 1902-48) is now seen as a seminal figure in the rise of Abstract Expressionism and a key mentor to New York School artists like Jackson Pollock, but Gorky became “American” only after fleeing his native Armenia as a young man. In fact, Gorky was himself a decidedly American creation; born Vosdanik Adonian, he renamed himself upon arrival in the United States to intimate (falsely) that he was somehow connected to Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was popular in the west. Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, did the same thing. And after all, what is more American than re-branding?

“AMERICA” VERSUS “AMERICAN”

“America” is both the explicit and implicit subject of many of the works in the gallery of objects around you. In some cases, the title of an individual painting speaks to a specific, identifiable location in America (say Madison Spare Park, Cross Creek, Grand Central Station); in other instances, the title does not pinpoint a particular site in America, but the setting that has inspired the artists of the scene is still physically in the United States. Meanwhile, a painting of “America” need not connote a geographically American scene at all. Instead, “America” can often be detected more viscerally in the sensibility of the scene or the objects and people represented in it (suburban ennui, branded products, the Lone Ranger).

Other works in the show are less of America than they are “American” – regardless of their subject matter. A woodcut of Jerusalem by Philip Pearlstein, an aquatint of female Chinese millstone workers by Hong Liu, a lithograph of African-American quilters in France by Faith Ringgold, and a painting of Haitian Women balancing melons on their heads by Adolf Dehn may take as their subject matter worlds and cultures beyond the boundaries of the United States, but they are doubtlessly “American” works of art simply by virtue of their being produced by natively-born and naturalized American artists.

This begs the question: Can we envision a scenario in which a work by an American artist could ever not be seen as an American work of art? Can we imagine any paintings of American landscapes or even of Americana that would not be viewed as inherently American? Are any works in this show not American?  

H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D. 
Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions
Assistant Professor of Art History
Art History Program Director
December 2017