Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nostalgia at Tacoma Art Museum

"At Home Across America: Scenes from the 1930s to 1950s"

"Tobacco Farms," an original color serigraph by Robert Gwathmey Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

At the risk of sounding snarky, I have a hard time imagining why anyone would want to see At Home Across America: Scenes from the 1930s to 1950s in Prints at Tacoma Art Museum. Unless they're writing an art history thesis. Or very nostalgic for the 1940s.

On the other hand, people who are going to TAM for the Mexican folk art show or the Chihuly show or the Northwest Biennial (opening Jan. 21) should stop in anyway just to see what American art was like between the beginnings of modernism (which happened in Europe and kind of missed America) and the advent of Abstract Expressionism (which changed the whole world of art).

Nostalgia is the key word now, and it was then too. America was recovering from the Great Depression and was engaged in a World War. People were moving from the bucolic countryside to the hectic cities, and it seemed like everyone was seeking reminders of quieter and less threatening times; artists obliged them with images of an America that never really was. The art of the day glorified country life and working men and women - a romantic and unrealistic view of the world.

There are more than 80 prints in this show - all from Associated American Artists, a gallery that marketed to average Americans rather than wealthy collectors, meaning they catered to popular taste. Nearly all are in black and white, and most can be described as regionalism or American Scene art. Other than Thomas Hart Benton, Howard Cook, John Stuart Curry and Robert Gwathmey, there are hardly any recognizable names in this show.

The show isn't completely comprised of American Scene prints. There are a couple that are modernistic or Cubist-inspired, most notably Alexander Archipenko's "Bathers" and Donald E. Thompson's "Space and the Structure of Sorrow," not to mention Gwathmey's "Tobacco Farmers," which forecasted works by Romare Beardon and Jacob Lawrence. The wall text for "Bathers" talks about the influence of European moderns on American art. Both Thompson's and Archpenko's art are heroically abstract in the tradition of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler. They're nicely designed, but the silly-sad faces in Thompson's print are too corny, even for 1949.

The one thing I have to salute these artists for is their strong sense of design, even if it is, in many instances, too obvious. They mastered the art of using line and direction to lead the eye and of using strong dark and light contrasts for dramatic effect, even if they had to distort natural forms in unnatural ways to create such effects. Storm clouds swirl about and human figures bend and stretch in dramatic but contrived ways.

It's amazing how many of these artists seem to have been influenced by Benton. He may have had a stronger impact on his generation of artists than I ever realized. Jackson Pollock studied with Benton and later said he was a model of what not to do. The images in this show may well be the models against which a whole generation of American artists rebelled. Most of the artists in this show were contemporaries of Stuart Davis and John Sloan, and the later ones contemporaries of Motherwell and Pollock. They do not stand up well in comparison.

These were not the giants of the time, but viewing these prints is an interesting look at history.

At Home Across America: Scenes From the 1930s to 1950s

Through Feb. 26, Wed.–Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., $8-$10, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

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