of radical change?
It's hard even to identify the significant forces at work, much less those artists who most eloquently summarize their effect on our age. Is it globalization of the economy that is reshaping modern America, or demographic shifts in ethnic, racial, and regional groups that we see reflected in politics, advertising, and popular culture? Is it the telecommunications revolution propelling us into a future of promise and anxiety, or familiar forces like the threat of nuclear war that still shape the universe toward which we guide our children? How can artists relate to such pervasive but indefinable concerns?
At mid-century, many artists responded to genocide and nuclear war in the only language that seemed capable of utterance about unspeakable things. But their heroic abstraction, more difficult and private than earlier nature-inspired abstract styles, ruptured the relationship between artist and audience.
A decade from now, will the fourteen artists chosen for "American Kaleidoscope" still seem relevant as guides to our concerns at the end of this period that early optimists called the "American Century"?
Formalism in the 1960s and 1970s was in part a search for the elements of a new vocabulary, but its academic, intellectual aspect further distanced the already-small art public. During the same period, museum curators and art historians proliferated to fill the widening gap between the artwork that "speaks for itself" and the public that didn't understand and, increasingly, didn't care. As skepticism took root on all sides, the fundamental contract between artist and audience, inherent in the expressive purpose of the artwork, eroded.
Museum curators and art historians proliferated to fill the widening gap between the artwork that "speaks for itself" and the public that didn't understand and, increasingly, didn't care.
Before we get discouraged about this situation, however, it's useful to remember that there has long been a serious disconnection between artists and the public in America. John Singleton Copley complained that his fellow colonials considered artists no better than cobblers. More than a century later, Thomas Eakins wrote, "My honours are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect, enhanced because unsought." Yet both Copley and Eakins are championed today for their way of filtering experience through a complex social mesh, leaving a visual record of their times that engages and teaches us about the past.
Looking to artworks for insight into social, political, and economic interests beyond aesthetics is one way we gauge the passing of pure formalism.
Thomas Eakins wrote, "My honours are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect, enhanced because unsought."
The very different artists in "American Kaleidoscope" make art that provokes and attracts an audience rather than bearing silent witness. Although diverse in style, they all embrace robust physicality in subjects and materials: large canvases, oversize figures, assertive gestures, vibrant color, bold compositions, impastoed paint, active brushwork, collaged objects, and much more.
They rarely tell an entire story, but they supply the details needed for long "takes," allowing the viewer to follow unfolding ideas.
Many of these artists use narrative elements to prolong our engagement with their work. They rarely tell an entire story, but they supply the details needed for long "takes," allowing the viewer to follow unfolding ideas. They also relate subject to style (Hung Liu's dripped "veils" of translucent paint evoking memory), or link personal experience to larger social themes (Fred Brown's part-Indian grandmother), and otherwise lay out an elaborated fabric of interwoven ideas, with multiple threads to be followed. Reclaiming a narrative tradition and reasserting physicality are recognized as conservative strategies by the avant-garde, but they reach out to people as a way of reestablishing trust.
Exhibition curator Jacquelyn Days Serwer chose from a rich field of exciting artists working in all corners of the country. Her selection is personal, signaling the multiple possibilities available to those eager for visual evidence of our common experience in this chaotic time. The three themes highlighted here are loose groups with permeable boundaries; each artist could easily fit in different categories of description.
The themes of community, history, and spirituality emphasize personal experience and the democratization of our common culture.
Her selection is personal, signaling the multiple possibilities available to those eager for visual evidence of our common experience in this chaotic time.
American artistic culture was profoundly shaped by European standards and institutions, but the legacy of royal academies and state-sponsored museums is inadequate to the realization of a cultural expression befitting the pluralistic society now maturing in the United States. Frank Romero, Roger Shimomura, Deborah Oropallo, and others explore the clash of immigrant or slave experiences from the varying perspectives of new arrivals or their descendants. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith evokes the equally disjunctive experience of the "first American."
The artists included here are especially adept at holding in balance the conflicting forces of fragmentation and assimilation in our nation today.
In the mid-1970s-in response to the civil rights movement and in anticipation of the Bicentennial-historians reviewed the original archival documents of colonization, revolution, establishment of national institutions, and expansion across the continent. As a result, the entire history of the United States has been rewritten to expunge old legends in favor of more nuanced and equivocal accounts.
Each artist reminds us that their individual stories are not dry history in America.
Spirituality and materialism have long been linked in America; our artists have often relied on private patronage from merchants, industrialists, and corporations.
Thomas Cole's dependence on merchant-grocer Luman Reed did not dampen his enthusiasm for spiritual meanings in his art, linked to Transcendentalism, dissenting religious traditions, and cyclical theories in history. Artists of the American Renaissance were supported by Gilded Age industrialists like Charles Lang Freer, who found a kind of redemption from materialism in his subordination to the artists he revered. Although few of the artists featured here could be described as religious in the traditional sense, many bring an enduring spirit to their work, which reinforces the beliefs and strivings of so many Americans.
The very commitment to being an artist in America at the end of the twentieth century can be seen as a belief in the spirit.
Similarly, few if any of these artists would describe their art
as centering on nationality. Yet taken together, they offer the
image of a society seeking the fullest expression, revealing the
various personal, social, and spiritual impulses current today.
Their achievements are convincing evidence that the democratic
experiment begun more than two centuries ago offers unparalleled
opportunities for understanding ourselves in relation to the society
we are creating.
Smithsonian American Art Museum