BOCA RATON, Florida — As the saying goes, Florida’s biggest export is image — it once dealt in sun-soaked fantasy, a beach, a drink. Spanish moss. A tender cluster of mosquito bites. The ability to regulate your body temperature easily and at will (ocean soak, air conditioning, do it again). Sometimes, too, Florida is more the Florida Man meme than palliative getaway. But strangeness — and objective loveliness — can have an effect. The stories keep coming (that, and the state’s open government laws), and so do the visitors, even with eroding beaches. A bevy of reasons why Florida is obsessed with itself.
Everyone else was obsessed with us, too, for a long time. Most of the featured artists in Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State, a comprehensive exhibition of 200 plus pieces at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, when visiting Florida, were taken with its beauty or its communities. Curated by Jennifer Hardin and Gary Monroe, the show features paintings, photographs, and a section of objects. “There was no ‘school’ of art in Florida,” says Irvin Lippman, the Museum’s executive director, so the sense of Florida came, mostly, from elsewhere.
Among the works in the show — which span from the 1750s and end with Garry Winogrand’s 1969 photograph, “Apollo 11 Moon Launch, Cape Kennedy, Florida” — are depictions of Florida primarily by its visitors, invited or sent on assignment, some of whom never left. Martin Johnson Heade, who painted the florid “Florida Sunset with Waterfowl” in 1883-1894 and rendered the swampy crepuscule aflame, came to Florida for his health. A transplant from Pennsylvania, Hugh F. McKean paints “The Minister (Henry Ellis, Orlando)” (c. 1935) depicting the black Minister Ellis against a backdrop of heaven, hell, and a pointed steeple, like a Renaissance portrait. Later, he and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean, built the collection at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
There are Floridian myths, like Stevan Dohanos’s 1940 “Barefoot Mailman (Mural Studies, West Palm Beach, Florida, Post Office),” a sunny portrait of the man who worked the “Barefoot Route” from Palm beach to Miami and supposedly died by alligator attack. There are Floridian — Southern — American realities: George Snow Hill’s mural study, Building the Tamiami Trial (1938), which depicts a black chain gang amidst the palm trees, their faces hidden. This was Hill’s submission to the Miami Post Office and Courthouse, subsequently rejected by a government committee who, says the image’s attendant plaque, “found the subject of a chain gang inappropriate for celebrating Florida and its history.”
There are also the realities that became inaccurately mythologized, like George de Forest Brush’s “Indian Hunting Cranes, Florida” (1887), in which the “Indian” in question is solitary and undisturbed — more landscape than portrait. The painting’s description states that Brush specialized in “idealized depictions … Yet, he lived with the Arapaho, Crow, and Shoshone in Wyoming and Montana, and had an understanding of their life ways and forced migrations.” Brush had traveled to St. Augustine, too, and seen the country’s indigenous populations, among them the Apache who were held prisoner at Fort Marion. His paintings, though, speak little of these truths, if at all.
There is a John Singer Sargent — “Basin with Sailor, Villa Vizcaya, Miami, Florida” (1917). There are works by the Highwaymen, the black painters who sold their landscapes on the road in the 1950s, at the height of segregation; Harold Newton’s “Pink Cloud, Sunset” (no date) glows so bright it seems to move. There are Bruce Mozert’s underwater photographs at Silver Springs, in which women cook and trim the grass beneath the waves. Speaking of women, you won’t find many of them. But they’re here. There’s Doris Lee, and Sally Michel, and — wonderfully — Bunny Yeager, the pin-up model and photographer who shot Bettie Page the way only Bunny could (with good-humored sensuality). There are photographs by Gordon Parks, who, in 1943, was sent to Daytona Beach by the Office of War of Information; there, he documented the Bethune-Cookman College, an HBCU founded by Mary McLeod Bethune, and Midway, one of the city’s earliest black neighborhoods.
The show’s small but dense material culture section brought me great delight — maybe because I’m a Floridian; maybe for me, a Silver Springs TV tray, plastic flamingoes, canes with alligator handles, poppy advertisements for the Belle of Crescent City (the belle is an orange), and a bulb-less alligator lamp from 1910 signal comfort, not kitsch. One of my favorite painters, Purvis Young, is here, too — perhaps because he painted not on canvas but on wood? Maybe because in a show that stops at 1969, his work — first showcased in the early 1970s — came too late? I would have liked to see him where he belonged, but I will take Young where I can find him. The section is small and, whether intended or not, he becomes its crux. Its center.
The black artist was from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, a place he depicted continuously and that provided him with the materials to do it. He painted a codified language, in which horses were reverent and angels were divinely human, where Overtown was both a trap and a religious reprieve. In Young’s paintings, divine intervention and the goodness of community, of one’s people, contend with systematic oppression and societal ills, forced poverty, widespread racism. He once said, “I’d just like to see peace. Then maybe I’d take my brush and throw it away.” His Florida is the true Florida: full of both decay and radiance and that, perhaps, nobody wanted to imagine. It’s a Florida that everyone needed — needs — to see.
Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State, curated by Jennifer Hardin and Gary Monroe, is on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton) through March 24, 2019.