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An American Century: 20th-Century Master Drawings from the Collection

  • SANTA BARBARA, California
  • /
  • October 07, 2010

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Jacob Lawrence, Decommissioning the Sea Cloud, 1944. Watercolor on paper. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Jr.
Millard Sheets, Spring Street, Los Angeles, 1929. Watercolor. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum purchase, The Dicken Fund.

Reframing America is the unifying theme for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s (SBMA) five exhibitions in the fall that address, each in a distinctive way, the concept of America.

Utilizing perspectives that range from the traditional to the idiosyncratic, this group of shows allude, in one way or another, to the idea proposed by Van Wyck Brook in his seminal essay, On Creating a Usable Past (1918). Herein, the author advocated the embrace of the creative impulse in forming a distinct, American history, free from conventional constraints, including those of the European establishment. Embracing the freedom of invention inherent in this notion, each of the five presentations imagine America differently, from the realm of fantasy in Stranger Than Fiction, to the grandiose landscapes in Yosemite, to the gritty realities of urban life in An American Century. The series examines America as not just a place, but also as an idea--one with a past, a present, and a future.

The anchor of Reframing America is An American Century, a look to the past of American art of the 20th century and SBMA’s significant collection of works on paper.

Comprising more than 75 works, the exhibition represents some of the nation’s best artists across almost a full century. At every point of significant shifts in style and subject matter—from the realist works of the Ashcan artists to abstract modernists—SBMA’s collections contains major works by major artists. The exhibition represents a history of American art, surveying both the diversity of techniques and materials that artists may use when they draw, and the period when art production in the United States became internationally significant. The collection also has a strong California flavor, and is prosperous in drawings that document the ways in which California artists have explored their own preoccupations, until they arrived on the national scene in the last few decades.

Joseph Stella, The By-Product Storage Tanks, n.d. Charcoal on paper. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Wright S. Ludington.

The richness of the collection allows a glimpse into the dynamic social and cultural changes experienced by these artists and their audiences. Everett Shinn’s gouache of a crowd of shoppers on a Sixth Avenue sidewalk in Manhattan contrasts with Arthur Mathews’ glamorous study of an idealized modern city, intended to be placed in the Sacramento State Capitol; both were painted in the first decades of the last century. The city, depicted in both a positive and negative light, is a subject that has continued to preoccupy American artists ever since, from John Marin’s jazzy cubist take on the frenetic construction in Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties to Christo’s repackaging of the Pont Neuf in Paris in the 1980s. Also painted in the first years of the last century, Lucia Mathews’ watercolor of a Carmel Valley oak tree contrasts with Fernand Lungren’s watercolor of the Mojave Desert: nature in all its variety, and the relationship to it, is another subject that fascinates and confounds artists.

The exhibition includes a group of drawings by leading Californian and Ashcan artists, and shifts into high-gear with a stunning group by the major early modernist artists that are a particular strength of the collection, like Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Joseph Stella. Regionalist and realist works from the 1930s and 1940s are also well represented, by artists like Edward Hopper, John Steuart Curry, George Grosz, and Jacob Lawrence. But there are also surprising works by little known artists, and works that have not been exhibited in a long time, by such artists as Dorr Bothwell and Romaire Bearden. The shift to abstraction is registered with major works by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. An eclectic group of major works by Philip Pearlstein, Christo, Nancy Graves, and Larry Rivers rounds out this story.

This exhibition has been curated by Bruce Robertson, Consulting Curator, in collaboration with Robert Henning, former Chief Curator. 

An American Century: 20th-Century Master Drawings from the Collection, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, October 9, 2010 – January 2, 2011.

Tags: American art

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