Cheekwood Art & Gardens Opens Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cheekwood Art & Gardens presents Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum on view March 19 – June 19 .

Modern Masters examines the complex and varied nature of American abstract art in the mid-20th century through three broadly conceived themes that span two decades of creative genius – “Significant Gestures,” “Optics and Order” and “New Images of Man.”

The decades following World War II were stimulating times for American Art. While some vanguard artists began to paint or sculpt in the 1930s as beneficiaries of WPA-era government support, other immigrant artists fled to the United States as Nazi power grew in Germany. A few artists were highly educated; others left school at an early age to pursue their art. Working in New York, California, the South and abroad, these artists blended knowledge gleaned from the old masters and modernists Picasso and Matisse with philosophy and ancient mythology to create abstract compositions that addressed current social concerns and personal history. Some mixed hardware—store paint with expensive artist colors and bits of paper torn from magazines, linking their work with contemporary life.

Aided in their efforts by a group of young dealers, prominent critics and influential editors, abstract artists gained credibility. Abstraction was no longer dismissed as irrelevant or incomprehensible, but instead became a widely discussed national style. Weekly magazines such as Life, Time and Newsweek brought images of contemporary abstraction to households throughout the country while New York museums toured exhibitions to the capitals of Europe. Galleries discovered new markets in the country’s growing middle-class, and newspapers celebrated American culture as an equal partner with technology in catapulting the United States to preeminence on the world stage. By the late 1950s, Sam Francis, Phillip Gusston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and other painters and sculptors who embraced abstraction early in the decade enjoyed success, celebrity and international acclaim.

“Significant Gestures” explores the autographic mark, executed in sweeping strokes of brilliant color that became the expressive vehicle for Francis, Hofmann and Kline as well as Michael Goldberg and Joan Mitchell. These artists and others, affected by World War II, became known as abstract expressionists. For each artist, the natural world, recent discoveries in physics and the build environment provided motifs for powerful canvases of color and light.
“Optics and Order” examines the artists who investigated ideas such as the exploration of mathematical proportion and carefully balanced color. This section, which highlights Josef Albers, also features Ad Reinhardt, who developed visual vocabularies that used rectilinear shapes to meld intellectual idea with emotional content, and artworks by like-minded artist Ilya Bolotowsky, Louise Nevelson and Esteban Vicente. Two sculptures by Anne Truitt, whose majestic columns transform childhood memories of Maryland’s Eastern Shore into totemic structures, are included in this section as well.

“New Images of Man” includes works by Romare Bearden, Jim Dine, David Driskell, Grace Hartigan, Nathan Oliveira, Larry Rivers and several others, each of whom searched their surroundings and personal lives for vignettes emblematic of larger, universal concerns. Issues such as tragedy, interpersonal communication and racial relations guided the creation of these artists’ pieces.

Image: Franz Kline, Blueberry Eyes, 1959-1960, oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Woodward Foundation

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