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Work of the Week: Spring is Coming

POSTED BY , ON April 19, 2013, Comments Off

Spring O'Keeffe

I’d describe today’s weather as February-esque. But the fact of the matter is that it’s almost MAY. So no matter how bad it is, spring and summer are definitely around the corner. It’s always happened like this. I checked some old calendars and summer is for sure on its way. At this point it’s just a numbers game. (Full disclosure: I don’t actually know what that phrase means.)

Reminders help, though—some brief sunlight, a flower here and there, dudes who’ve already switched to cargo shorts and aren’t looking back. The Art Institute has a few reminders on its walls, too, like Georgia O’Keeffe’s appropriately-named Spring from 1923/24, on display in gallery 265. The sun’s coming in at a relaxed 45-degree angle, so you can imagine it’s a mild morning, with a breeze pointing the house’s weathervane to the east. The palette is all fresh greens and purples and bright whites. The whole world is going to look like this soon, trust me.

Not today, though. Sorry. You should spend today inside—at the Art Institute! Bam.

New Acquisition: Cotton Pickers

POSTED BY , ON April 11, 2013, Comments Off

Benton_Cotton-Pickers

The Art Institute is proud to announce the recent acquisition of Thomas Hart Benton’s Cotton Pickers. Best known for his sinuous lines and frank treatment of rural subjects, the Missouri-born Benton is considered a critical figure in the history of American art for his mediating role between American Regionalism and the emerging forces of abstraction and modernism. He was deeply influenced by the work of the Old Masters , but also energized by modern art, including that by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Signac. In a very rare combination for the time, his work was both formally and politically progressive, as can be seen in Cotton Pickers, which brought into focus the bleak social and economic landscape of the South in the early 20th century in an inventive visual idiom.

Cotton Pickers is based on notes of a trip he made through the South in the early 1900s. Rendered on a relatively large scale, the painting shows the dignity of African American cotton pickers enduring backbreaking labor and southern summer heat. As the workers pick the cotton by hand, to be collected by the horse-drawn wagon in the background, one woman offers another a drink of water from a pail. A makeshift lean-to protects a sleeping child from the relentless sun. Benton renders the unforgiving Georgia clay, the dry fields, and the contorted bodies of the workers in a unified composition, the delicacy of which almost belies the progressive agenda of the work. Cotton Pickers , one of a limited number of large paintings created by Benton, will be shown alongside Grant Wood’s American Gothic and John Steuart Curry’s Hogs and Rattlesnakes at the Art Institute and will complete an important chapter in the museum’s representation of American Regionalism.

Image Credit: Thomas Hart Benton. Cotton Pickers, 1945. Prior bequest of Alexander Stewart; Centennial Major Acquisitions Income and Wesley M. Dixon Jr. funds; Roger and J. Peter McCormick Endowments; prior acquisition of the George F. Harding Collection and Cyrus H. McCormick Fund; Quinn E. Delaney, American Art Sales Proceeds, Alyce and Edwin DeCosta and Walter E. Heller Foundation, and Goodman funds; prior bequest of Arthur Rubloff; Estate of Walter Aitken; Ada Turnbull Hertle and Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; prior acquisition of Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize; Marian and Samuel Klasstorner and Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition funds; prior acquisition of Friends of American Art Collection; Wirt D. Walker Trust; Jay W. McGreevy Endowment; Cyrus Hall McCormick Fund; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions; Maurice D. Galleher Endowment; Alfred and May Tiefenbronner Memorial, Dr. Julian Archie, Gladys N. Anderson, and Simeon B. Williams funds; Capital Campaign General Acquisitions Endowment, and Benjamin Argile Memorial Fund.

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Weathervanes and the “Windy City”

POSTED BY , ON March 13, 2013, Comments Off

weathervane

Recent blustery conditions in our fair city—remember, Chicago’s moniker is the “Windy City”—has caused me to reflect on the weathervanes in the American Folk Art gallery. Weathervanes have been part of the American landscape for many years; originally, they were introduced by English colonial settlers as an instrument to reveal wind direction, or as decoration for a rooftop. But they were also coveted by American folk art collectors of the early 20th century because of their visual impact as silhouettes, appealing to collectors’ and artists’ modern aesthetic.

driehaus in studio

A wonderful newly acquired weathervane (top image, left side) by Henry Driehaus (1860-1943, in his studio immediately above) from this time period was recently installed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art at the museum. Above four silhouetted fish bearing the four cardinal points, Driehaus crafted a hunting dog obediently waiting behind his master and a Native American wielding a bow and arrow, with the exaggerated spikes of his headdress complementing the form of his pants and the bush below him. Born in the United States to Prussian immigrants, rural blacksmith Henry Driehaus trained as a smith in the European cities of Essen, Basel, and Zurich and learned ornamental ironwork in a monastery before returning to Pennsylvania in 1880. A few years later he opened a permanent shop in Hendricks Station, Frederick Township, where he executed multifaceted ironwork—from shoeing and ironing wagons to ornamental ironwork (such as andirons, coat hooks and hinges). This hand-wrought weathervane, which is actually signed by the blacksmith, illustrates Driehaus’s predilection for and specialization in decorative ironwork.

Complimenting the weathervanes in the gallery is a whirligig (top image, right side) made by Lithuanian immigrant Frank Memkus (1884-1965). Whirligigs have been made in America since at least the early 19th century. Unlike weathervanes, which functioned as indicators of wind direction, whirligigs were mainly intended for fun and ornamentation, and therefore, tend to be more personally decorated. Naturalized as an American citizen on May 24, 1945, Memkus could have made the whirligig as a commemorative gesture toward his newly adopted country.  As a new American, he might have been inspired by his recent naturalization, in combination with the Allied victory in Europe, to construct this overtly patriotic object. It employs the colors red, white, and blue to highlight the nation’s flag, and atop it stands a saluting seaman surrounded by airplane propellers, which, along with the flags, whirl and flutter in the wind.

These objects (and so many others) may be viewed in the Grainger Gallery of American Folk Art! But we apologize in advance for the lack of wind.

—Monica Obniski, Assistant Curator of American Art

Image Credit: Image courtesy of Guy Reinert files, Winterthur Library

The Dust Bowl

POSTED BY , ON November 20, 2012, Comments Off

The Dust Bowl, the latest undertaking of documentarian Ken Burns, premiered on Sunday night on PBS. Packed full of interviews with people who lived through it, film and photography from the period, and historical perspectives from numerous smart-seeming professor types, Burns tells the story of one of the greatest ecological disasters in American History (though we are working hard on topping it). Long story short, to bring everyone up to speed—the Dust Bowl refers to both a region and a time—the south central United States in the 1930s—when the combination of unsophisticated farming techniques and droughts ravaged the land, transforming once thriving natural grasslands into a parched, eroded hellscape. On top of this, the U.S. agricultural economy experienced a wheat bubble encouraged by the Government, and popped by the onset of the Great Depression. A toxic mix of bad luck and bad ideas.

Yes, good question, what does this have to do with the Art Institute? First off, smart guy, Ken Burns just happens to have spoken recently in our own Fullerton Hall. Cosponsored by WTTW, the night of conversation gave the filmmaker the chance to talk about how great the Art Institute is (the envy of New Yorkers? YES.) and give us a look into the process of making The Dust Bowl. Burns knew it was a topic he wanted to explore. Several years ago, he realized the clock was ticking on finding first-hand interviewees, and so began his research. He cast a wide net, posting a call for interview subjects throughout hundreds of nursing homes throughout the region and, in the end, found 29 participants; The Dust Bowl features nearly all of them.

That’s not all! The Dust Bowl was a central subject for the famed photographers of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Marion Post Wolcott rose to prominence after their involvement in the FSA effort to “show America to Americans” and subsequently defined a key photographic aesthetic of the 20th century. The Art Institute, of course (OF COURSE), holds significant works by these artists, including the iconic image above by Dorothea Lange, featuring a migrant farm worker displaced by the dust bowl.

So, if you missed The Dust Bowl‘s premiere, check your PBS listings for other opportunities. If you’re casting about for something to be thankful for this Thursday, it should give you some perspective.

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936, printed later. Bequest of Michael Cohen.

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The Wild West

POSTED BY , ON February 08, 2012, Comments Off

Confession: I’ve recently become obsessed with Lonesome Dove. No, not the mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones (although that’s pretty great too), but the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which it was based. For the uninitiated, Lonesome Dove is a sweeping western epic that chronicles the journey of a group of Texas rangers herding cattle from Texas to Montana in the mid-1870s. I’ll spare you more details, but thinking about the book recently led me into the museum’s galleries for Western American Art and straight into the paintings and sculptures of Frederic Remington.

Remington studied art at Yale but moved out West in the early 1880s. He worked as a ranch hand and traveled, observing Indian customs, ranch life, cowboys and cattle, the railroads, and soldiers on horseback patrolling America’s expanding frontier. In the late 1880s, he worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and accompanied the U.S. Sixth Cavalry as it pursued the Northern Plains Sioux Indians across the Badlands. To protect the regiment from Indian ambush, commanders would often send single cavalrymen far ahead to draw Indian fire, hence the title of the painting above, The Advance Guard, or The Military Sacrifice.

In the brightly lit foreground, Remington paints a soldier who has just been shot by an unseen Indian. He has already dropped his gun and looks as though he’s still reeling from the impact. Dust kicked up by other bullets is visible just behind the horse. And behind him, another soldier has abruptly turned to warn the troops of the imminent danger.

Remington is known for such heroic portrayals of Western life as this scene, and so I can’t help but think about how that matches up against the not-so-romanticized tales of Western life that come out of Larry McMurtry’s books. Or even the not-so-romanticized portrayal of Western and Native American life from other artists in the same gallery. I imagine that the “truth” is probably somewhere in the middle, although I’d guess that life for soldiers (and Texas rangers) on the frontier was more difficult and much less heroic-seeming than we can imagine.

But since not all of you might care about Lonesome Dove, maybe a more interesting question is, what art reminds you of books, or vice versa?

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