June 5, 2011

American Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Stuart Davis, Pad No. 4, 1947; oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in.

Two weeks ago I had a delightful day in Brooklyn with a visit to Coney Island and the Aquarium in the morning, which I wrote about here and here, followed by a trip to the Brooklyn Museum in the afternoon. The Brooklyn Museum is the museum of my childhood, and my many trips there were full of the enchantment of the Native American collection in the Great Hall, the period rooms and the Egyptian Art. Painting did not register much with me as a child. On this recent trip my parents and I decided to visit the newish (which I hadn't seen before) installation of the collection of American fine and decorative arts on the fifth floor, called "American Identities". If it's not too terrible to use this word when describing a museum visit, the galleries––in which painting and sculpture, and even some early film, were shown alongside furniture and other decorative arts––were entertaining. I loved seeing the juxtapositions of a period's furnishings with its paintings and sculpture; I enjoyed seeing contemporary art hung alongside that of the past, for instance a Pat Steir waterfall painting next to a 19th century painting of Niagara Falls. In the corners of the floor were comfortable seating areas, furnished with chairs appropriate to the period of the surrounding galleries.

We entered the exhibition at the wrong end, seeing the modernist work first, so that's how I'm presenting it here. Hanging salon style were three terrific Stuart Davis paintings, jazzy and lively. Pad No. 4 along with the larger Mellow Pad are a perfect expression of the syncopation and rhythmic complexities of jazz.

Gertrude Greene, Construction in Ochre, 1941; oil, wood, and masonite on masonite, 36 1/8 x 34 in.

Greene was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936. This relief is strongly reminiscent of the work of Jean Arp, but her forms are quite different. I love the way the circle at the edge of the brown ground is caught between rising up and being pushed back into a waiting round slot, making me wonder if she was inspired by a game of ping pong.

John Vassos designer, RCA Victor Special Model K, Portable Electric Phonograph, 1935; aluminum, various metals, plastic, felt, leather; dimensions closed: 7 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 17 1/4 in.

I couldn't resist including this phonograph in the blog post, even though the photo is not quite in focus. This RCA Victor was in the non-objective art section of the "Modern Life" galleries; the jazz it might have played was clearly important to Stuart Davis and others at this time.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Untitled (Standing Woman), 1933-35; terracotta, painted pale tan; 14 1/4 x 4 x 3 1/2 in.

I was very taken with this small sculpture, especially the simple rendering of clasped hands. A modernist abstraction of forms and repetition of shapes pays homage to African sculpture.

Charles Sheeler, Incantation, 1946; oil on canvas; 42 1/8 x 20 1/8 in.

Although Sheeler's later, more abstracted, paintings are not among my favorites, I found Incantation to be a very convincing and powerful work. The two massive cylinders flanking the complex web of pipes have a monumental and solemn presence. The fact that Sheeler equated these industrial forms with a magical spell shows how far we've come from the positive view of industry held by many during the Machine Age.

Edward Dreis, Gravel-Silo, ca. 1930s; oil on canvas; 27 1/4 x 37 1/4 in.

Dreis presents us with another view of modern life; not only the silo, but a freight train and electrical lines, painted matter of factly with diagonals moving this way and that through space.

Augustus Aaron Wilson, Tigers, 1931; painted wood, wire 24 1/2 x 9 x 86 in.; painted wood, horsehair or bristles, 36 x 12 x 79 in.

How could I not love these tigers? made around the same time as the Dreis painting, but a world away in feeling. Wilson was a retired lighthouse keeper who carved duck decoys. Inspired by the great tiger Emyr at Ringling Brothers Circus, he made these two tigers from railroad ties and telephone poles. They have so much character: the lifted head of the larger tiger and the painted patterns on the smaller.

Giraffe Head, 1850-1900; painted wood, glass; 26 x 11 x 13 in.

Another sculpture that completely charmed me was this alert giraffe, patterned with bold spots, its eyes looking clearly and calmly ahead. It's amusing to see, in the background, an academic marble sculpture; for me, the juxtaposition is all in the giraffe's favor.

Ammi Phillips, Jeannette Woolley later Mrs. John Vincent Storm, 1838; oil on canvas, 33 x 27 15/16 in.

Phillips is my favorite of the American self taught itinerant painters. His forms are so assured and clear and his faces are so specific and beautifully realized. The various textures of satin dress and lace collar and coiled hair are carefully described in a precise, tactile style. The wings of the collar pointing to ballooning sleeves and countered by the upward folds of the bodice are elegant rhythms, much more sophisticated than the label "folk artist" would lead us to expect.

Ashiwi Polychrome Water Jar, Zuni culture, 1700-1750; pottery, slip; 11 1/4 x 13 1/4 x 13 1/4 in.

This jar is one of several Native American pots on view and it is a very beautiful and dramatic piece. The abstract patterns flow around the jar, enhancing the bulging form. I love the strong sweep outwards to the widest part of the pot, with an even stronger sweep in. And what a pleasure it is to see this pot and other objects held in equal esteem to the "fine art" in the collection; it helps us to notice more, appreciate more, and make connections we would not otherwise make.


  1. enjoyed the tour, Altoon. what a nice clarity of vision you have. I esp liked edward dreis's silo, what a crazy structure. it reminds me of building's I've made in 'sketchup' which don't quite jell.

  2. thanks, rappel. I agree that the silo is pretty wacky; it looks like three buildings put together into one. I took lots more pics but not all came out and I don't want to post too much at once (so maybe my vision isn't so clear).

  3. Altoon, thanks for the tour of one of my favorite musuems. The Charles Sheeler painting reminds me of your current work.
    Best regards,

  4. Sheeler is one of my art heroes, Ilene, so thanks for the comparison. I'm glad to hear the Brooklyn Museum is one of your favorites.

  5. I love the B. museum also, Altoon. It looks as though their collection is deeper than one might have thought, and how nice that they have space to bring out some of what's probably been warehoused for decades.

  6. but what I really miss, Helen, is having the entire collection of Native American artifacts out on the floor, as it was when I was a child, complete with Northwest totem poles.