Tuesday, June 19, 2007

50 Years of American Art

J. Jeffrey Grant "The Ghetto"

In November, 1939, the Art Institute of Chicago
opened "Half a Century of American Art"
a selective retrospective of the
of the 13,237 paintings and 3643 sculptures
that had been shown in the annual
"Exhibits of American Painting and Sculpture"
from 1888-1938

This exhibit included all the most famous names in American art
from that period: Sargent, Eakins, Cassatt, Bellows etc.

Wilson Irvine

Albin Polasek

Walter Ufer

All of the pieces shown above were
included in the exhibition catalog,
and in addition,
the following P&C members were also included in the exhibit:

Frank Dudley
Ruth Van Sickle Ford
Victor Higgins
Emory Seidel

Museum Director and Curator of Painting and Sculpture,
Daniel Catton Rich,
wrote a brief history of those 50
years in the exhibition catalog

concluding it with the following sentence:

"When Chicago stages its century of American art in 1988,
what a different story it will tell !"

But as we now know,
the last Art Institute exhibit of
American Painting and Sculpture
occurred in 1986,
so that 1988 centenary exhibit never took place.

Why did this extraordinary series
of national exhibits come to an end ?

Daniel Catton Rich's introductory essay to the 1947 exhibition
catalog possibly gives an explanation:

"In theory, a survey of various contemporary points of view within a single frame is admirable. But in the past, the large annual museum shows, here and elsewhere, have been far from representative. At their best, they have become unequal samplings of
what is going on, and at their worst they have presented a jumbled and confused aspect to the public. Too often they have been distilled and re-distilled from other national exhibits until the final products is both tasteless and thin."

So rather than have the large cross-sections of American art
that filled the entire museum in the early decades
of the 20th Century,
the museum would now fill
just one or two rooms with
"the leading tendencies in American painting and sculpture"

At the end of that 1947 essay,
Catton Rich again looked to the future,
promising that:

"the Art Institute expects to follow this exhibit with others given to dominant themes such as Traditionalism, Realism, and Expressionism in American Art."

But, as we know, that never happened either,
and the AIC national shows
just became a satellite of the New York modern art world.
(and why not just go to New York to see that ?)

The A.I.C. exhibits of "American Painting and Sculpture"
didn't end in 1986,
they actually ended almost 50 years earlier.

(and I don't think it's any coincidence,
that when the decline began
after the 1939 retrospective,
the show was juried by curators,
and never again
by painters and sculptors,
as it had been for the previous 50 years)


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