Director's Choice: Who Made the Cut?

Albert Pinkham Ryder's Jonah

In honor of Elizabeth "Betsy" Broun's nearly thirty years at the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and her imminent retirement, Broun spoke to a full house last month at the McEvoy Auditorium, revealing insights and personal observations about her favorite works of art in SAAM's collection. And since she's the director, her Top Ten contains eighteen artworks. Today, I will talk about five of Broun's favorites. In the upcoming weeks, I will post about some of her other likes.

Broun opened the talk with an image of Jonah by Albert Pinkham Ryder, an artist close to her heart, and the subject of a book she published in 1989. "I worry that he's in danger of being forgotten," she told us as she shared her thoughts about his work, his era, and his influence on artists including Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock, who considered Ryder the greatest artist of his generation. According to Broun, the difficult later years of Ryder's life—depression, ill health, loneliness—can be seen in the canvas, as Jonah struggles in the churning sea for dear life. A giant beast descends while at the top of the painting, the artist fashioned a god of light spreading his wings, a higher power, exhibiting what Broun called "a spiritual tenaciousness."

Benton's Wheat painting

Thomas Hart Benton's Wheat

The tour de Broun continued with Thomas Hart Benton's Wheat, another work of art that tells what might appear to be a simple story, but on deeper looking, speaks to the artist's life as well. "You know I'm from Kansas City and you get injected with the Benton juice in the hospital when you're born," Broun told us. Born in Missouri, Benton was an accomplished painter as well as musician (the first person to develop notation for harmonica music). Late in life, after a heart attack and he was no longer actively painting, a friend, "an old drinking buddy" commissioned this work to get him back in the studio. "...I think this is Benton's artistic testament...He deeply loved Walt Whitman, and I think this is his mid-Western translation of Leaves of Grass...In the front you see a couple of rows have been mowed down and harvested...And right behind is a stalk which is broken but not harvested yet."

Next up were artists who came to this country as immigrants. These include Yasuo Kuniyoshi who emigrated from Japan in 1906, followed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, David Hockney, and Nam June Paik, each of whom came to the United States in 1964 for vastly different reasons. Having fled Bulgaria, Christo had no country or passport for seventeen years. When he arrived in New York, he was officially stateless. According to Broun, "Christo and Jeanne-Claude believed that true freedom was art." Their early project was the twenty-four-and-a-half mile Running Fence, (of which SAAM acquired the archive). "I believe he is the great artist of the Cold War; every one of his projects is related to the standoff between east and west," Broun told us. When she mentioned this theory to Christo, he replied, "Please do not make me into a political artist. I left politics in order to become a free man in art."

David Hockney painting

David Hockney's Savings and Loan Building

David Hockney, whose Savings and Loan Building, is both an homage to Southern California as well as a subtle commentary on minimalism, where everything had to be flat and on a grid. The addition of palm trees is very Hockney. As a gay man, he felt constrained in his native U.K., and left for California, where he celebrated the "swimming pool culture" of Los Angeles and the openness of the people and the landscape. Nam June Paik came to the U.S. in order to be on the forefront of technology. "He is the first artist to have the inspired idea that you could make art from television. He's called the father of video art." His Electronic Superhighway, a version of America seen through monitors and screens, holds pride of place in SAAM's Lincoln Gallery. "I'm quite fond of things that get labeled as eye candy," Broun told us, "But to me this is brain candy too, It's a tribute he did to his adopted country thirty years after he arrived. I think it's the best portrait I've ever seen of the sheer chaotic crazy regionalism of this country."

I could go on but you get the idea. Listen for yourself as Broun tells you things that will make you want to take another look at these works of art. And, if you listen carefully to all the stories you hear, you just may be the person that everyone wants to sit next to at an upcoming dinner party. You owe it to the person on either side of you to watch the entire webcast.

Stay tuned for part II of Director's Choice