Back in 2006, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, received a $140,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the exhibition and publication of its extensive collection of works on paper. The following year, the Henry Luce Foundation gave the Wadsworth $50,000 to do conservation work on the works on paper in preparation for the exhibition.
The result of this support is American Moderns on Paper: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a traveling exhibition of some 100 works on paper, mostly watercolors, and a substantial exhibition catalogue (Yale University Press, $42.50 softbound). American Moderns on Paper debuted at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, in February, is currently being featured simply as American Moderns at the Portland, Maine, Museum of Art (through September 12), and will finished its run back at the Wadsworth Atheneum (October 2 to January 2, 2011).
The first thing that American Moderns on Paper reminds us is that Hartford was once a wealthy city, the insurance capitol of America, with the wherewithal to support a major museum and an active program of collecting. Both the city and the museum have fallen on hard times in recent decades, but under the direction of A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr. (1927-1944) and his successor Charles C. Cunningham (1946-1966) the Wadsworth Atheneum was a player on the contemporary scene, willing and able to purchase and exhibit the new art of the day.
Chick Austin, who had a side career as a magician, was a charismatic museum director with adventurous tastes. In 1931, he mounted the first American museum exhibition of Surrealist art. He defended the wild new art in a Hartford Courant article entitled “Magician of the Modern” by arguing “These pictures you are going to see are chic. They are entertaining. They are of the moment. We do not have to taken them seriously to enjoy them … It is much more satisfying aesthetically to be amused, to be frightened even, than to be bored by a pompous and empty art which has become enfeebled through the constant reiteration of outmoded formulae.”
To empower an audience by giving it permission to be amused, upset, baffled is a daring and refreshing approach to the appreciation of new art. Would that more museum directors adopted this philosophy.
American Moderns on Paper features 100 works from the period 1910 to 1960 and organized into four broad categories. “Progressive and Avant-Garde Artists” includes works on paper by such artists as Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, John Sloan, Abraham Walkowitz, Max Weber, John Marin, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles DeMuth, and Arthur Dove. “Regionalism, Social Realism, and American Visions” is devoted to artists such as Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Rockwell Kent, Stuart Davis, Milton Avery, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Thomas Hart Benton, Peggy Bacon, and Reginald Marsh.
In the “Surrealism and Neo-Romaticism” vein there are works by Salvadore Dali, Gaston Lachaise, Alexander Calder, Matta, Archille Gorky, and Yves Tanguy and a passel of lesser-known artists whose art may have been “of the moment” but doesn’t really stand the test of time. “Postwar Abstraction and the Resurgence of Realism” features works by Morris Graves, Hans Hofmann, Mark Tobey, William Baziotes, David Smith, Philip Pearlstein, Ellsworth Kelly, and Andrew Wyeth.
These days we tend to think of watercolor as a minor medium, insubstantial, transparent, the stuff of amateurs, but American Moderns on Paper also reminds us that watercolor was an important medium for capturing the immediacy of a 20th century American art and culture on the move. See the show this summer in Portland or this fall in Hartford.
(Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland ME, 207-775-6148.)