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Doug Simay's View from northern Ohio:

America has a wonderful artistic heritage.  If one’s view of art history solely revolved around western European creation - it would be a narrow and ultimately boring engagement.  Unfortunately, as a visitor to museums, be they international or American, I am mostly irritated when the same old Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are put before me.  I suppose this is proof that the venue shows great and powerful stuff (thus they, the cultural institution, must be great and powerful).

I went to Ohio in mid August to see the George Tooker retrospective because I like American art.  The short week in northern Ohio allowed me to focus on a mid-century span of American realist painting that was refreshing, rejuvenating, and served as another source for pride in American painting.

George Tooker (born 1920) received his undergraduate degree from Harvard in English Literature.  His interest must have been in art as he undertook studies at the Art Students League in NYC starting out under the tutelage of Reginald Marsh. It was the influence of his peers (Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Platt Lynnes) that most profoundly shaped his style.


Coney Island 1947

He is most noted for two types/themes of paintings: protest paintings that were profoundly surreal and reflected the realities of the Cold War and George Orwell’s 1984 (published at that time) .  These works were aimed at compelling social change and are filled with social anxiety and angst.


Subway 1950


Waiting Room 1957

As a gay man living openly with his life’s companion, William Christopher, he also was profoundly influenced by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X having participated in the march on Selma.


Dark Angel

His second major body of works can be classified as “social community” paintings in which he highlights the positive values of the human spirit.  He painted celebratory paintings of interracial domesticity and the positive acts of individuals within their larger world.


Embrace of Peace 1988

His knowledge of literature, particularly poetry, provides much allegory for his paintings.
His love of the Italian Renaissance painters (particularly Piero della Francesca and Giotto) heavily influenced the formal aspects of his compositions.


Lovers 1959

All of his work was executed in egg tempera - the thinly applied layers  in summation produce images that are opalescent and satiny in their visual texture.  No photograph can capture the radiance and softness of his exactingly detailed paintings.  It is a painstaking and precise process that certainly has limited his lifetime output of works.  Most paintings were completely worked out before hand in exacting preparatory drawings (themselves masterpieces).


Bathhouses 1950

The circle of artists with whom he shares importance at that time are, in addition to Cadmus and French, Harry Sternberg, Jack Levine, and Jacob Lawrence.  Though Tooker has never really been “assigned” to a “school” of painting, his work has been referred to as “Magic Realism”.  This style of painting was eclipsed at the time by the emergence of postwar Abstract Expressionism.  Many thought that the future of artistic vision was in abstraction.  I certainly see much Modernism in Tooker’s work.


Highway 1953

George Tooker is a hugely important American painter.  He was honored in 2007 with the National Medal of Honor in the Arts.  This exhibition has been organized by the National Academy of Art (NYC), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (Philadelphia) and the Columbus Museum of Art.  It finally closes with this Ohio show on September 6th.  I have traveled almost fully across this country to see this exhibition the likes of which has not been seen in the last 30 years and will not be assembled again in my lifetime.  The 46 paintings seen here are amongst the most affecting exhibitions that I have personally witnessed.


Charles Demuth 1921

The Columbus Museum of Art has a nice collection. It is not a big museum and seems to me to be about the same size as the San Diego Museum of Art.  I do appreciate the pride they show in the American art held in their collection.  It seems most art museums want to “fit in” by demonstrating their understanding and capacity to show European art (particularly the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists).  My brain has been so steeped in European art that when in an American museum I really like seeing art by Americans.  So I brighten up when I see good works by Demuth, Sheeler, Kensett, Church, Fitz Hugh Lane.


George Bellows 1915

The Columbus Museum has a large collection of George Bellows - they should he was a Columbus native son.  

I tried to get a handle on contemporary art in Columbus.  The “art district” is in the Short North district on North High Street between Goodale and Fifth Ave.  The contemporary scene is really thin and one is more likely to find tattoo parlors and hip clothing boutiques than decent galleries here.  Overall, Columbus is a very depressed looking city.  There are lots of young people given Ohio State University - but there is a lot of unoccupied and derelict commercial space waiting better times. 

I enjoyed seeing a cross section of international contemporary glass artists (BIGG - Breakthrough Ideas in Global Glass) juried by the Venetian master, Lino Tagliapietra.


Hyunsung Cho of South Korea was awarded “Best of Show”.

Ohio is the state to see art glass.  Of course that probably comes from the role that glass has played in the industrial past of the state.  Maybe glass is also popular here as Ohio has only very rare mild earthquakes and hold-down-wax doesn’t seem to be used in any exhibitions I have seen.  The center of art glass in this state and the birthplace of art glass in this country is found in Toledo.

Toledo is 2 ½ hours northwest from Columbus very near Lake Erie, not far from Detroit, and quite close to the border with Canada.  The Toledo Museum of Art (founded in 1901) is a knockout.  It is much larger than the Columbus Museum and its collections are vastly better.  Toledo has one name to thank for its cultural heritage - Edward Drummond Libby, founder of the Libby Glass works and fabulously wealthy in the beginning of the 20th century.  He and his wife traveled extensively and shopped non-stop. The museum building, the land it is on, virtually 80% of its art holdings, and the huge endowment that 100 years later continues to support it are the gifts from the Libbys.  The Libbys had two qualities that make for a mighty fine museum.  They were beyond fabulously wealthy and they had great scholarly, refined taste.  They bought everything from Greek and Roman antiquities to what was being produced worldwide through 1925 when Mr. Libby died.  And, then their Foundation has continued to fund acquisition of the best of the best since then.  The history of their philanthropy is one of the finer stories of what truly great wealth can accomplish.
As near as I can tell the Toledo Museum is the only reason to visit Toledo.  But for any that value a truly wonderful museum experience - Toledo must not be passed up.


Paul Cadmus 1931
 "Jerry"

I discuss the quality of the holdings of the Toledo Museum in the context of Tooker’s time.  Paul Cadmus (1904-1949) was one of George Tooker’s friends and fellow students at the Art Students League - as was the subject of this painting Jared French.  Cadmus was gay, as Tooker, and as was French until he “converted” and married (in those days that meant a woman) later in life.  French was Cadmus’ on-again-off-again lover and this painting from 1931 leaves little doubt for what the book in hand signals.


Fairfield Porter 1957 "Frank O'Hara"

Porter (1907-1975) was a realistic painter and art critic.  Frank O’Hara, the subject of this painting, was a very important poet and art critic and friends with Porter.  Between them Tooker, Porter, French, Cadmus were vital realist painters in America just after WWII.  O’Hara was one of the confidants and insiders of the circle of artists that birthed the first truly American art form post WWII - Abstract Expressionism.  It was AbEx that eclipsed new American realism and caused the world to focus on American abstraction.  Porter (as critic) wrote to O’Hara - “The important thing for critics to remember is the subject matter in abstract painting and the abstraction in representational work.”  Looking at this circle of American realist painters over the last two days, this statement is perfectly accurate.  I sometimes think Clement Greenberg was a toxic intellect in the history of American Modernism.


Glass Pavilion 

Four years ago the Glass Pavilion opened on the Toledo Museum’s campus.  It was the first American project designed by the Japanese firm SANAA.  Except for the roof every wall is ground-to-roof glass; much of it curved.  Photographs cannot capture the beauty of a building that is simultaneously “inside and outside”.


Roman Glass 1st century AD
 


Open Storage Vault 

Ohio is synonymous with glass.  In 1962 Harvey Littleton started the “Toledo Workshops”.  One of his earliest students who helped to teach and form these Toledo based workshops was Dale Chilhuly.  The birthplace of the American Studio Glass Movement was in a garage hotshop on the campus of the Toledo Museum.
The Toledo Museum has, perhaps, the largest and most comprehensive collection of the 5,000 year history of glass from Phoenicia to Pilchuk.


Hotshop 

Inside the Glass Pavilion is a very large and active hotshop with gallery-seating so visitors can see why glass making is “performance art“. It takes a multi-person crew to fabricate complex formations.  Each member of the crew has something to offer and is vital - even though there is always a leader.


Center for Visual Art 

Immediately next door to the museum is the Frank Gehry designed University of Toledo Center for Visual Art - an art school.

I finish my report on Toledo with the most current story. This last Monday Don Bacigalupi (director of the Toledo Museum for the last 6 years and before that the director of the San Diego Museum of Art (where he left no legacy except careerism)) announced publicly that he was the new director of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas due to open in 2010 (in a building designed by Moshie Safdie).  Alice in 2006 was Forbes’ #20 richest person in the world (Wal-Mart inheritance).  I am not a fan of Alice Walton.  She has used her fortune to plunder the art world and its treasures for the purposes of her “museum”.  I think of her attempt in 2007 to purloin Thomas Eakins’ portrait called the “Gross Clinic” from its hometown of Philadelphia.  She gave the city only 5 days to come up with $68 million to block the sale and keep its cultural patrimony at home.  She is a bandido. 

Nonetheless, if she does indeed pull off a museum that elevates and honors the terrific history of American art (without resorting to European 19th and 20th century European masters to validate the museum‘s forte) I will be happily contrite for my negative attitude toward her.

The last couple days I spent in Cleveland.  The Cleveland Museum of Art is undergoing a massive expansion/addition; so much of the museum is a construction zone and not fully “present” publicly.  The new East Wing (Contemporary art) is now open along with the 1916 Building.

Happily I enjoyed my stay in Cleveland because of the chance to visit with friends of 30+ years, the chance to see the Louis Comfort Tiffany designed stained glass window and chapel in Lake  View Cemetery honoring Jeptha Wade (founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company), and to see the incredibly impressive monument to our 20th President, James Garfield (1831-1881).

I was not impressed with the Cleveland Museum.  They have a broad collection with terrific works of top quality.  But the new museum building lacks personality and a warm invitation to “experience”.  Maybe that is because the curators have hung this new venue paying attention to “power”.  The Contemporary Wing is hung with international “power” works demonstrating the Cleveland Museum’s attention to fashion and money. 

I was in an American mood looking to further round out my days of mid 20th century American realism.  In keeping with the tenor set by Tooker - I was looking for American social realism.  This last image is a painting by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2004).  He was of “Tooker’s cloth” because he believed that art should be a quest for self and social identity.  As a Black artist painting Harlem and mixing abstraction and realism - Lawrence was another pillar of a mid century painting vernacular that was distinctly American.


Jacob Lawrence 1958

Travel widely.  Learn actively.  Life is an art.

Have fun,

Doug Simay 8/24/2009

If you want to respond to this article please e-mail me directly at doug@simayspace.com.

 

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