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What Do You See?

I have fallen a week behind! Last week was the meeting of our museum’s board of trustees, so perhaps that explains why.

Our most recent acquisitions were presented during that board meeting. One notable addition to the museum’s collection is Larry Sultan’s large-scale photograph Novato, from his series Homeland, which focused on the landscape near his home in Corte Madera, California.

Novato, 2007

Larry Sultan (1946–2009), Novato, 2009, dye coupler print, Purchase with funds provided by the Stieglitz Circle of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, courtesy of Estate of Larry Sultan/Wirtz Gallery

This important series was the last the artist completed before his untimely death in 2009 from cancer. Sultan hired day laborers to pose as actors in a semi-uncultivated landscape that abuts the edge of a housing community. The multiple layers of meaning in this work are riveting, but what struck me when I saw it in San Francisco for the first time was its pastoral qualities. It reminded me of another work in the Amon Carter’s collection: Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return, painted in 1845.

Hunter's Return

Thomas Cole (1801–1848), The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas

The settled landscape emerging out of the “wilderness” in both works is one point of intersection, but I would be interested to know what you think. What points of similarity or difference do you see? Write me in the comments section, and I will respond. And if you would like to see the Sultan work, stay tuned. I will let you know in my next blog when the opportunity will be available to you.

A Post from the Road

I have been on the road now for several days, traveling from Fort Worth to New York City and on to San Francisco, where I am attending the mid-winter meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors. More than 240 directors from the United States, Canada, and Mexico have gathered to discuss the issues that our cultural industry is facing. As the economic and demographic trends change in urban communities, art museums are not only positioned to increase their value as destinations for education and entertainment, but also to think about new ways of doing business. Like any industry, creative and innovative thinking is the core of leadership.

Seminar Photo

Right now, I am in a seminar on how to motivate innovative thinking to meet the needs of the communities we serve. My group is exploring ways to engage younger audiences in the life of the art museum. The facilitators are encouraging us to do the unexpected. One of the ideas we are discussing is a “speed dating” event for young people on Valentine’s Day where participants pick their favorite works of art as a starting point for compatibility. Would you come to such an event? I would be very interested in ideas that you might have for ways to attract young individuals and couples to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Enter them in the comment section; you never know, we might just put it into action!

Happy New Year!

Although 2011 marked our celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary, I am a firm believer that any anniversary of significance should last for at least eighteen months. So we will continue to celebrate, even as we turn fifty-one.

For me, our celebration continued when I returned from my holiday adventures to find on my desk an advance copy of the book that will accompany our exhibition, Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell, which opens here February 11. Rick Stewart, the author of the book and curator of the project, tells a lively story of Russell’s tremendous achievement working with a medium that is subtle and variable. Every watercolor in the exhibition is reproduced in a stunning plate section in the book that proves what Rick claims in his essay: Russell was a true artistic genius as a watercolorist.

Romance Maker

Holding this book made me realize yet again the strength of the museum’s collection and our commitment to find new ways to deepen our understanding of art that seems so familiar. Charlie Russell is one of the artists that we have long celebrated. He was a favorite of the museum’s namesake, Amon G. Carter. But never before has his work as a watercolorist been explored—he was an innovator in this medium. Finally, that story is available for all in the book that I hold. If you are a lover of watercolor, or a fan of Charlie Russell, this volume belongs in your library. Come see the works in person, then visit our store to take them home with you.

Merry and Bright

Did you know that tomorrow, December 22, is the anniversary of Christmas tree lights? The bright sparkles of string lights that today adorn trees and houses alike got their start in 1882 when Edward Johnson, who worked for Thomas Edison’s Illumination Company, first tried stringing together small electric bulbs on a single power cord. Though string lights did not enjoy immediate popularity, today they hold a special place in the hearts of many during the holiday season.

Whether your holiday season is brightened by friends and family, your very own illuminated Christmas tree, the Festival of Lights, or all three, we here at the Amon Carter wish you a holiday that is merry and bright.

Gast House Christmas Tree

Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), Gast House, Christmas Tree [Colorado], 1929, gelatin silver print, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist

Spreading the Word

I am traveling this week, so I come to you this morning from gate D2 at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. The goal of this trip is to help advance the profile of our museum across the nation. I have been in St. Louis working with our conservator, Claire Barry, and the conservators at the Saint Louis Art Museum on a proposed exhibition project that we hope to partner on.

Jolly Flatboatmen in Port

George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879), Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, 1857, oil on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 123, 1944

The exhibition will explore the series of paintings the American artist George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) made during the 1840s and 1850s of life along the Mississippi River—the edge of the western frontier at the time. While we are interested in the compelling cultural narrative Bingham's work suggests about western expansion, we are also exploring his working process. Yesterday we examined through technical process the underdrawings Bingham made on his canvases and their relationship to the highly finished drawings he made of his primary subject: the men who worked on the river. Through the science of conservation—the art museum equivalent of CSI—we hope to better understand how Bingham linked drawing on paper and canvas to achieve complex, multi-figured paintings. Put another way, we’re endeavoring to get inside his head as a working artist creating a national story for his day. Our process began yesterday to reconstruct Bingham's process, and it will continue for more than a year.

Building partnerships with other art museums to advance scholarship is just one reason to travel on behalf of the Amon Carter. Tomorrow, I continue north to Chicago to develop more relationships that will help bring Fort Worth's great American art museum to the nation.

An American Tradition

On behalf of all of us at the Amon Carter, I want to wish you and yours a happy and safe holiday wherever this Thanksgiving finds you. After you have gathered around your own tables, we hope that you will become part of another American tradition—the Amon Carter Museum of American Art—by bringing your family and friends to enjoy the museum’s great collection. You are always welcome here at our house.

Lewis Dinner Party, Spur Ranch, TX

Erwin E. Smith (1866–1947), Lewis Dinner Party, Spur Ranch, Texas., 1912, nitrate negative, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Bequest of Mary Alice Pettis

John Marin Revealed

This past weekend, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art opened its fall exhibition, John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury. The exhibition, which brings together 65 of Marin’s paintings in oil and watercolor, takes a fresh and focused look at the artist’s last great body of work, created between 1933 and 1953, the year of Marin’s death.

During those years, Marin wrestled with the planar architectonics of Cubism—so much a part of his production as an early modernist—finally allowing the tension created by cubist form to relax into loose, flowing lines of great descriptive power and urgency. An active agent in the art world of mid-century America, as well as a tried and true observer of nature, Marin produced work in these years that deeply influenced the emerging experimentation of the New York School.

Composition Cape Split Maine

John Marin (1870–1953), Composition, Cape Split, Maine, No. 2, 1933, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1969.9

Our museum’s interest in this underappreciated period of Marin’s long and innovative career began quite early in our history. In 1969, the Amon Carter purchased Marin’s Composition, Cape Split, No. 2, created in 1933. That acquisition in our first decade of operation foreshadowed what is now being celebrated in the exhibition: Marin’s ongoing influence on the energetic and often chaotic art world of mid-century America. The artist’s painterly exuberance in this work marked the start of his period of experimentation between the mediums of oil and watercolor, and it exemplifies his achievement of a lyrical synthesis of the two.

It is fair to say this painting has not gotten its proper due until now. The authentic character of the painting only recently was able to be fully appreciated as Marin’s application of paint and the true colors of his palette lay hidden beneath a thick, shiny layer of old, discolored varnish. Claire Barry and Bart Devolder, the museum’s conservators, expertly removed the varnish in preparation for the exhibition. We are now able to see what Marin intended us to see: a fresh-matte surface and the physicality of brushstrokes that transform the viscosity of the oil medium into a view of the roiling seas of Pleasant Bay near the artist’s home at Cape Split in Addison, Maine. It is a wonder among wonders in John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury, on view at the Amon Carter until January 8, 2012.

The Hidden History of Paintings

On Friday, October 21, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art announced a major new acquisition: Mary Cassatt’s Woman Standing, Holding a Fan. Completed in 1879, Cassatt made this painting at a critical point in her career. As a young artist living in Paris, she met and began working with the incomparable Edgar Degas. Their relationship was dynamic, and they worked together nearly every day during this period. Degas challenged Cassatt to experiment with new techniques and subject matter as they both explored their identities as modern artists; he would invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists the very year that our new work was completed.

A painting, however, is never frozen in time; it moves from the artist’s easel through a circuitous path of environments and communities. A work of art’s provenance, or history of ownership, can be fascinating and provides a window into an artist’s evolving reputation, as well as into the history of taste. Charting provenance requires a detective’s mind, finding clues wherever possible. Often times such a clue comes from the back of the painting, where inscriptions or labels on the canvas’ stretcher are traces of its passage through time and space. Such is the case with the museum’s new Cassatt. Written on the stretcher, in bold, black letters, are a single word and a number: VOLLARD 5165.

Vollard Signature Detail

The name references Ambrose Vollard, the Parisian dealer who Cassatt met around 1896. Vollard’s aggressive promotion of modern art attracted Cassatt to his gallery, and by 1904 he was buying work from the artist to present to his clientele. The inscription is the dealer’s inventory number, indicating that sometime after 1904, Vollard purchased Woman Standing, Holding a Fan for his gallery’s stock.

As objects, works of art have many stories to tell, both in what they represent on the canvas and in what might be hidden behind. Woman Standing, Holding a Fan is on view in our gallery, so be sure to visit soon to see our latest addition.

ACMAA: Both a Museum and a Research Destination

Last week while preparing a brief lecture, I was reminded of my first introduction to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. In 1987, Doreen Bolger (then curator at the ACMAA and now director of the Baltimore Museum of Art) hired me to be a Philadelphia-based research assistant on an exhibition exploring the work of the American artist William Michael Harnett. Though I never made it to Fort Worth to see the beautiful paintings by Harnett in this museum’s collection, for more than a year I scoured the records in Philadelphia libraries and historical societies searching for information on the patrons who commissioned works from the nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil artist. As rigorous research will, mine on Harnett uncovered networks—relationships between the artist and his patrons that showed how Harnett’s realistic still lifes of “old things” captivated a new group of professionals at the center of the country’s modernization: the media, manufacturing, and retail shopping.

What impressed me at the time was how serious the Amon Carter’s leadership was about research. They clearly understood that when an exhibition project advances knowledge, related historical research makes the art all the more relevant to visitors’ own lives. The museum’s painting by Harnett, Ease (1887), benefited from my archival digging. I discovered that the original owner, James Abbe, belonged to that network of patrons transforming the modern American world. Abbe, a paper manufacturer and newspaper publisher in Massachusetts, ordered the work from Harnett. At the center of the composition filled with Abbe’s personal bric-a-brac and books, a newspaper rests on a tabletop where a burning cigar has been set, as though Abbe has just left the room and will return shortly.

Harnett's Ease

William M. Harnett (1848–1892), Ease, 1887, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1972.2

Understanding how works of art gained meaning in their own day—how they were part of social networks—requires committed study; this is what I learned as an employee of the ACMAA more than twenty-years ago. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has been committed to such study for all of its history. We are known as an art museum filled with masterworks, but we are also a known research destination for the city, the region, and the nation. Come to the museum to see a work like Harnett’s Ease, then visit our research library and archives to mine the riches of life.

Collaboration in the Cultural District

On Thursday of last week I worked with my installation crew to hang a painting and two related drawings by Alexander Hogue, a Texas artist who during the 1930s earned a national reputation for his depictions of the Dust Bowl. Completed in 1934, Drouth Stricken Area is arguably Hogue’s masterpiece from this period. His approach is not documentary, but rather surrealist, producing a haunting, nearly airless view of a Texas farm wrecked by drought and erosion; an emaciated cow stands helplessly in front of the dust-filled water trough, his death eminent.

Drouth Stricken Area

Alexandre Hogue (1898–1994), Drouth Stricken Area, 1934, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase

Hogue’s painting served as a warning of the dangers of poor land use fueled by greed. As he said at the time, “That is what the landscape will be if they don’t let the government do its work.” Aside from the particular social circumstances of the Depression era, Hogue’s portrayal of the devastated Dust Bowl landscape touches on a theme that artists in the American tradition have long pursued. The environment –a passing storm, a vibrant sunset, a verdant wheat field—serve as emblems of larger social circumstances. Nature and its changeable state tell a story about human fears and aspirations. When you next visit the Amon Carter, take time to look at Hogue’s painting and then compare it to Martin Johnson Heade’s Thunderstorm on Narragansett Bay (1868).

Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, 1868, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Drouth Stricken Area is in the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, and we are grateful to have it on view; it offers our visitors the opportunity to see a masterful work by this artist as well as for the Amon Carter to be a part of a collaborative venture within Fort Worth’s Cultural District. Down the street, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is hosting a retrospective of Hogue’s work. Though he is best known for his surreal meditations on drought and erosion during the Dust Bowl era, Hogue continued to paint until his death in 1998. Walking through the exhibition, I found myself face to face with an artist of prodigious talent constantly experimenting with style and subject matter, though always coming back to the landscape of his immediate world. His late series of large scale paintings of the Big Bend are fierce and beautiful simultaneously, and they are on view down the street in their entirety for the first time.

Working together, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History have created a unique opportunity to not only see the full scope of Hogue’s significant achievement, but also to understand his work as part of the long tradition of American landscape painting. Be sure to visit both museums this fall. You will not be disappointed.