WCMA exhibit examines art’s place in U.S. history

WCMA’s impressive new ‘Three Centuries of American Art’ exhibit is organized chronologically to highlight works’ historical context. Jerry Li/Photo Editor.

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) catalog aptly describes its current exhibition Three Centuries of American Art as a “panoply of American creativity.” Nancy Gwozdz, the museum’s security supervisor, lauds the collection as “absolutely beautiful,” claiming that it is attracting sizable and enthusiastic crowds every day. Indeed, even the most casual onlooker can see the exhibition as an elegantly understated yet dazzling testament to the variety and quality of American art across a variety of media, periods and origins.

Its content, although independently valuable, is enriched by the meticulous choreography of Kevin Murphy, head curator of the exhibit. Unlike in his past curations, Murphy chose to execute Three Centuries of American Art according to chronology rather than by theme.

“This time I took an entirely different tack and hung the show in chronological order with minimal interpretive texts,” Murphy said. “I also wanted to experiment with the collection – I’m still really learning it – to see whether I could construct a narrative of American art from about 1700 to 1955 with the self-imposed limitation of installing mostly objects that had not been on display recently or ever.”

With this innovative approach, Murphy effectively focused attention on the works as part of a larger historical context, helping to inform the viewer about our shared cultural heritage.

“What I really hope people do, as they toggle back and forth between 300 years of history, is think about these objects as part of historical moments, but also [as] having a place in the present, and how they might inform or reflect our experience,” he said.

The experience of the exhibition, both historical and aesthetic, begins in a room painted a brooding wine-red. In the center stands a bronze, lamp-sized sculpture, “The Puritan,” created in 1899 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The subject of the work is a staid Puritan man, with an angular top hat and a flared cape, one arm on his hip and the other proudly commanding a walking stick held to the side. He is mid-step with a look of unabashed purpose. The statue’s central position in the first room sets an appropriately resolute tone for the exhibition, which possesses a quiet but convincing certainty.

“The Puritan” is surrounded and supported by portraits, sketches and three pieces of furniture: an imposing chest-on-chest of tiger maple adorned with gold handles and two delicate wooden chairs. The paintings and sketches are in the classical 18th century tradition, with works of such canonical artists as Benjamin West gracing the walls. His portrait “Selina Elizabeth Brookes, Viscountess de Vesci,” painted in 1776, immediately attracts the eye with its rich blue hues, offset by the raspberry pink rose in the subject’s hair and warm ochre of her shawl. Most curious is her sideways glance, indicating not timidity but rather engagement with some object out of the viewer’s sight. The mystery of this work participates in an engaging dialogue with the straightforwardness of works such as “The Puritan.”

This dialogue is continued in the second room of the exhibition, where playing the part of “The Puritan” is the 19th century marble “Bust of Abraham Lincoln” by Sarah Fisher Ames. The wizened face of the nation’s 19th century stands central in the hexagonal room, directly parallel to the first room’s sculpture. It is supported and extended by the works adorning the dulled sky-blue of the room’s walls, from Maurice Brazil Prendergast’s impressionist oil-on-canvas work, “Girls in the Park” to the emotive lines of Morton Livingston Schamberg’s expressionist oil-on-canvas painting “Study of a Girl (Fanette Reider).”

But the shining star of the room is Edward Hopper’s “Morning in a City.” The oil-on-canvas work was created in 1944, just as hope began to emerge from a brutal world war. It portrays the intimate and almost overwhelming symbolic scene of a naked woman gazing out of her bedroom window in a moment of absolute observation and stillness. The work stands to Lincoln’s left and is just as imposing and impressive with its humanity as the bust is with its historicity. Indeed, the exhibition’s glory lies in its exposé not only of the history of America through its art but also of America’s human landscape, of its sense of fun and its sense of purpose, of the beauty of its land and of the pain of its people.

The exhibition intends to move a discussion of America toward a discussion of art at the College and how our art reflects our own brand of artistic expression. Murphy intended to question the selection of art itself, spotlighting the context of the College’s art acquisition over centuries.

“I wanted to promote a discussion of Williams’ collecting practices over its long history,” Murphy said. “What conscious or unconscious biases inform the collection? It’s not surprising that the collection, particularly the earliest material, has much pertaining to Williams itself – portraits of past presidents and trustees – or Williamstown. White men, either art by or depictions of, are dominant throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t think we should take the history of the collection for granted, but [we] should be actively interrogating our collecting strategies both past and present.”

This is not an exhibition to be taken for granted. All who can should make a point to view it in its enriched brevity before it closes on Oct. 4, 2015.

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