ArtWeekend

The Open-Ended Narratives of a Small Museum

What if Abstract Expressionism never happened?

Arthur B. Davies, "Heifer of the Dawn" (c.1905), oil on canvas, gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1975
Arthur B. Davies, “Heifer of the Dawn” (c.1905), oil on canvas, gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1975 (All images by the author for Hyperallergic.)

WILMINGTON, Delaware — The quirks, diversions, and counter-narratives offered by small museums often feel preordained to shake up engrained attitudes and assumptions, and so it goes with the Delaware Art Museum, which, to be honest, didn’t seem at first glance to be a such a promising prospect.

Founded in 1912 with a large purchase of work by the Wilmington-based illustrator Howard Pyle, who had died the previous year from a kidney infection, the museum has made a specialty of American illustration and Pre-Raphaelite painting.

This core group, however, is augmented by a substantial selection of American painting, starting with a portrait of George Washington from around 1825-1830 — not by the ever-reliable Gilbert Stuart, but by either Rembrandt Peale or his dad, Charles Willson Peale (the attribution is unresolved) — which a wall label describes as “the first work of art not by Howard Pyle to enter the Delaware Art Museum.”

Peale’s dome-headed Washington, posthumous by a good quarter-century, is much more streamlined and sculptural than Stuart’s gruffly brushy “Atheneum” portrait (the one we think about when we think about Washington), which was begun three years before the first president’s death. The Peale version is currently serving as the co-anchor of a single-room display simply called American Portraits, 1757-1856. 

The painting of Washington hangs to the right of an introductory wall text; to the left, there is a portrait in oil on paper by yet another Peale, this time Raphaelle [sic]. (The ultimate Old Master fanboy, Charles named a third son and two daughters from his first marriage after Rubens, Angelica Kauffman, and Sofonisba Anguissola, respectively. One of his six children from a second marriage was named after Titian.)

Raphaelle Peale, "Absalom Jones" (1910), oil on paper mounted to board, gift of Absalom Jones School, 1971; Rembrandt Peale or Charles Willson Peale, "George Washington, (c.1825-1830), oil on canvas, bequest of Dr. Joseph Pyle, 1919
Raphaelle Peale, “Absalom Jones” (1910), oil on paper mounted to board, gift of Absalom Jones School, 1971; Rembrandt Peale or Charles Willson Peale, “George Washington, (c.1825-1830), oil on canvas, bequest of Dr. Joseph Pyle, 1919

The second portrait, painted in 1810, formally mirrors the one of Washington: the sitter, Absalom Jones, is turned to the right and Washington is turned to the left. The wall label describes Jones as:

[T]he prominent minister of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Born a slave in Sussex, Delaware, Jones eventually won his freedom, became a founding member of the Free African Society, was ordained the first African American minister of the Episcopal denomination, and helped organize a school for African American children.

The pairing of the two portraits — the minister born enslaved and the patrician, slaveholding president — is uncommonly moving. The curling-over-the-ear hairstyles (Jones’s in black, Washington’s in white), the white collars and black coats, the dignified mien and dark backgrounds split open our embalmed response to the image of Washington by complicating his received context.

Jones, whose right arm cradles a copy of the Bible in a pose that uncannily prefigures that of the Statue of Liberty, is a contemporaneous rebuke to the racist hypocrisies that tainted the Enlightenment principles infusing the creation of the Constitution. Peale paints him with unerring realism, conveying an unembellished sense of strength and wisdom that eschews all trappings of the heroic.

The presentation of these two works couldn’t be more understated or more effective: a curatorial masterstroke allowing the paintings to speak for themselves, with just the right amount of supplemental information. It is also a clue to the openness and diversity found throughout the museum, especially in the postwar collection, which, it can be argued, seems to imagine an American art scene in which Abstract Expressionism didn’t exist, or at the very least, did not play such an outsized role.

The emphasis suggested by the layout of the second floor (where 20th-21st century art is held) is already revisionist, with a large gallery dedicated to “John Sloan and The Eight / Early American Modernism,” and a slightly larger one containing “American Art after 1940 / Postmodernism: American Art since 1960.” In between the two, there is a much smaller room for “Abstraction and the American Scene.”

The proportionately large amount of space given over to The Eight, a group of artists (Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, and William J. Glackens) who rebelled against ossified academic standards and adopted an invigorated use of paint-as-paint, was made possible by another large acquisition, this time from John Sloan’s widow, Helen Farr.

But this gathering of artwork is also a fascinating reminder of the underground ferment that characterized progressive culture in this country from the very beginning of the 20th century. (The Eight are so named for a protest show they held in New York City in 1908, after their work had been rejected by establishment venues.) The surprise here is the diversity of imagery and technique, given that the work of these artists is often equated with the grayed-down, loosely painted cityscapes of the Ashcan School, a larger group that they joined later on.

John Sloan, "Helen at the Easel" (1947), casein tempera underpaint, and oil-varnish glaze on panel (some Shiva Ponsol colors used), gift of the John Sloan Trust
John Sloan, “Helen at the Easel” (1947), casein tempera underpaint, and oil-varnish glaze on panel (some Shiva Ponsol colors used), gift of the John Sloan Trust

Sloan, for one, shows an unusually wide range of both subject matter and use of paint, from the Ashcan-y “Wet Night on the Bowery” (1911) to the Impressionistic “Autumn, Rocks and Bushes” (1914) to the quasi-Metaphysical “Evening, Santa Fe, Down by the D and R Track” (1919), not to mention the truly odd portrait he made of Farr, “Helen at the Easel” (1947), which is striated by innumerable, short, thin brushstrokes (which are unexplained by the wall text) streaking across the head, body, clothing, and background, as if the painting were a pedagogical exercise in volumetric form.

This selection of Sloan’s work presents him as a restless experimenter, which may explain why his idiosyncratic and iconoclastic student, John Graham, was so devoted to him. But the room overall establishes the variety of the group, from the faceted brushstrokes and crepuscular light of Arthur B. Davies’ “Heifer of the Dawn” (c.1905) to George Luks’ high contrasts and muscular impasto (“Trout Fishing,” 1919).

There are also moodily gorgeous landscapes by the non-Eight artists Charles Burchfield and Marsden Hartley, as well as an expressionistic bronze head of Marcel Duchamp from 1943 (cast in the 1960s) by Reuben Nakian.

The Duchamp portrait, with its exaggerated, hawklike features, feels out of place in the room, but it is interesting as a link between the first generation of American rebels and the postwar artists who seized the initiative of vanguard painting in the wake of World War II, fueled by European ideas of Cubism, Surrealism, and Dadaism (the last, of course, via Duchamp).

The curious thing about this array of works from the permanent collection is that the trademark moves of those postwar artists, otherwise known as the Abstract Expressionists, are embodied in just two paintings, both by Robert Motherwell — and only one of them is a gestural abstraction, “Je T’aime No. VII (Mallarme’s Swan: Homage)” (1957), which is hanging in the small room reserved for “Abstraction and the American Scene.”

The other Motherwell, in the larger gallery occupied by modern and postmodern art, is one of his majestic “Open” series (“Open No. 12 in Raw Sienna with Gray,” 1968), a long, horizontal acrylic-on-canvas with a gray rectangle floating on a raw sienna field, and sectioned off by vertical charcoal lines.

“Open No. 12” evinces none of the helter-skelter emotionalism associated with AbEx; it is instead an image of serenity and reason, a calm that is picked up by a painting of vertical stripes by Gene Davis and a tall, black, totem-like sculpture by Louise Nevelson.

The most conspicuous effect of what we might call Abstract Expressionist tokenism is the absence of a historical center of gravity: instead of all succeeding art appearing to line up for or against its influence, the other works seem to float freely in their own orbits.

Like the pairing of Absalom Jones and George Washington, this realignment of aesthetic forces takes its hold on you in its own space and time; nothing is forced or obviously underscored, with content taking a step ahead of form in the way you approach the work.

There’s a wall of New Image Painting, which is not something you find in museums every day, with vintage works by Joe Zucker (“Candle,” 1976) and Donald Sultan (“Hats,” 1979) as well as more recent paintings by David True (“Untitled,” 1987) and Pat Steir (“Little Red Waterfall,” 1994). All of these titles, with the exception of True’s (which depicts a woman wearing a bright red coat lying in a blue, storm-tossed rowboat, while a human-sized artist’s mannikin swims beneath the waves), denote the paintings’ subject matter, even if it is partially disguised, as in the Zucker and Sultan. In such a context, the “how” of these images is subservient to the “why.”

Melvin Edwards, "We Know" (1986), welded steel, gift of Mike and Rob Abel, 2006
Melvin Edwards, “We Know” (1986), welded steel, gift of Mike and Rob Abel, 2006

And the “why” — the desire to plumb the extravisual meanings of the works — grows in importance as the art proceeds generationally from the Abstract Expressionists’ glory days, with an increasing level of racial and gender diversity. One section of the gallery, labeled “Art after 1980: Identity and Politics,” holds three of the most striking works in the collection, all by African Americans: a sculpture by Melvin Edwards and paintings by Robert Colescott and Peter Williams.

“We Know” (1986) is an agglomeration of shapes made from Edwards’ characteristic welded steel, comprising a base, a spike, a hammer or hatchet, a hook, and an indecipherable, candle-shaped cylinder. Edwards’ art, which combines abstraction with found objects that manifest the trenchant material legacy of tools and chains, ripples with uncompromising integrity and intelligence — Exhibit A for a perennially unfashionable body of work that has only grown in strength, decade after decade, while retaining its humility in light of the history it cites.

The paintings of Robert Colescott, who died in 2009 at the age of 83, are most often associated with nasty send-ups of white culture in general and Western art history in particular. But he was also an endlessly inventive colorist, combining the lush and the garish to bracing effect.

Robert Colescott, "Big Bathers, Another Judgment" (1984), acrylic on canvas, F.V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 1986
Robert Colescott, “Big Bathers, Another Judgment” (1984), acrylic on canvas, F.V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 1986

His work on display here, “Big Bathers, Another Judgment” (1984), is a parody of the Judgment of Paris, with a multiracial cast of characters — fleshy, awkward, but defiantly beautiful nudes, with skin tones ranging from juicy pink to syrupy umber — surrounded by a tranquil but turbulently colored landscape: magenta clouds, cobalt blue sky, violet shoreline, and a gray-green body of water that looks like an acid bath.

The darkest-skinned woman is the most arresting — the deep umber of her body is highlighted with swipes of what looks like red, white, and orange mixed to a burnished glow, and further energized by a shock of alizarin in her hair and the bands of white across her breasts and hips, which could be unnatural tan lines or an exceptionally revealing bikini.

Either way, the painting presents more questions than answers, among them, who is doing the judging? Is it the woman elbow-deep in the water, or the face barely glimpsed behind a rock? Certainly it isn’t the sole male in the picture, a gray-haired nude asleep in the bottom left corner. Mostly it looks as if the three women, each a different skin color, are sizing each other up and, by extension, daring us to examine our own culturally defined standards of beauty.

Peter Williams, "Smile" (2016), oil on canvas, F.V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 2016
Peter Williams, “Smile” (2016), oil on canvas, F.V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 2016

The most challenging work of this group, however, is “Smile” (2016) by Peter Williams, which rivals the Motherwell in size — the most monumental painting I’ve seen by this consistently unsettling artist. According to the wall text, it was made during a residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, and it consequently “references New Orleans, its history, colors, and architecture and the 1811 slave rebellion—one of the largest in United States history—that took place in the city.”

That’s all well and good, but the imagery is floridly unhinged, a horror show played out on a sunny summer’s day. Done on six panels, each painted a bright color that serves as a ground (yellow, blue, aquamarine, and three shades of orange), the canvases are stacked two by three — yellow over orange, blue over aquamarine, orange over a darker orange — so that the painting overall reads as a triptych, and the images are arrayed accordingly.

On the right, a maniacal caricature of an African American man sits with his legs splayed out before him, manipulating a crane-like structure that seems assembled from an Erector Set. Perhaps punning on the name of that vintage toy, the crane emerges from the man’s groin and stretches across the entire composition.

The middle, almost abstract portion is taken up by the crane, while in the left-hand section, a large black man, who is just as caricatured as the one on the right, hangs upside-down from the crane as four small, dark-skinned, bare-chested, gremlin-like figures scurry around him.

The upside-down man wears a form-fitted white shirt, narrow black tie, and plaid trousers that parallel the plaid jacket on his tormentor on the right. The imagery is perplexing to say the least — if the picture alludes to the 1811 rebellion, who is attacking whom? It’s a reasonable question given the peculiar racial history of New Orleans, where mixed-race Creoles were slaveholders alongside the whites. A second look at the man on the right reveals that his hair is red, a swatch of Caucasian skin borders his black face, and the miniature profile of a white woman is planted in his ear.

Is he a white man in blackface? His hands and sandal-clad feet, both dark, say otherwise. Is the hanging man a leader of the revolt? His well-pressed clothes disagree. And who are the diminutive figures grieving over him or, in an equally plausible interpretation, assisting in his execution?

Perhaps the key is the rickety crane, which evokes, at least for me, the Constitutional compromises cobbled together to accommodate the demands of the slave states after the Revolution. These moral failures included the Electoral College, an inherently undemocratic system that has proven its ability — not to prevent a demagogue from winning the presidency, as its apologists have perpetually insisted — but to enable the most vilified and unpopular candidate in recent history to assume power over the future of the planet.

If Williams painted “Smile” (and who could come up with a more sardonic title?) before November 8th, it’s a safe bet that this particular idea wasn’t on his mind. But the deranged imagery and skewed racial dynamics that he superimposes over the history of the 1811 rebellion is grounded in a distinct vision of an America unravelling from the fatal aftermath of its original sin, which no quantity of blood can wash away.

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