The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

An image of two red and blue birds in a tree at night

Fred Tomaselli, Migrant Fruit Thugs, 2006, leaves, photo collage, gouache, acrylic and resin on wood panel, Glenstone. © Fred Tomaselli. Image courtesy Glenstone

Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.


The presentation of The Singing and the Silence coincides with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964—events which highlight mankind’s journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. Although human activity has affected many species, birds in particular embody these competing impulses. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today use avian imagery to meaningfully connect with the natural world, among other themes.

While artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. The 46 artworks on display consider themes such as contemporary culture’s evolving relationship with the natural world, the steady rise in environmental consciousness, and the rituals of birding. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the poem “The Bird at Dawn” by Harold Monro.

Rachel Berwick’s large-scale, mixed-media installation, Blueshift, will be on public display for the first time as part of the exhibition, as will a temporary, site-specific mural James Prosek has created for the exhibition’s gallery space. A behind-the-scenes time-lapse video of the installation of this mural is available, along with other exhibition-related videos, on the museum’s YouTube channel. Artworks by each artist can be viewed in our online gallery, below.

The exhibition was organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.


Visiting Information

October 30, 2014 February 22, 2015
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission


The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Rollin W. King, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, Caroline Niemczyk, Debbie Frank Petersen, Rosemary L. Ripley, Holly and Nick Ruffin and the C.K. Williams Foundation.


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David Beck
born Muncie, IN 1953-died San Francisco, CA 2018
David Beck is influenced by crank toys, whirligigs, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mechanical robots called automata that delighted, and sometimes tricked, children and adults.
Barbara Bosworth
born Cleveland, OH 1953

Photographer Barbara Bosworth focuses on landscape photography and is particularly interested in the interrelatedness of man and the natural environment.

Joann Brennan
born Philadelphia, PA 1962
Walton Ford
born Larchmont, NY 1960
Laurel Roth Hope
born Concord, CA 1973
Paula McCartney
born Pittsburgh, PA 1971
James Prosek
born Stamford, CT 1975
Tom Uttech
born Merrill, WI 1942