The American Scene on Paper: Prints and Drawings from
the Schoen Collection
On display through March 22
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
When FDR introduced his Works Progress Administration to Depression-era America, he gave meaningful employment to blue- and white-collar workers. Little did he know that more than 70 years later, the products of that initiative would still provide gainful employment to art dealers, auctioneers, curators, and preservationists. Art from the WPA continues to be showcased to mark the emergence of a strong sense of national identity in industrialized America.
The American Scene on Paper charts a quest for a cohesive voice, with printmakers exploring their past through rural farming scenes and their future through urban paranoia. There's a wealth of different artists, media, and art styles here, from fine graphite drawings to full-spectrumed watercolors. And while the show contains no great surprises or eye-popping images, it's a solid exhibition that covers the social strata of the time.
At the top, there's Blanche McVeigh's "Idle Hour Club," a 1939 glimpse into the life of African-American high society. McVeigh was a master printmaker who specialized in etching. This aquatint shows a playful side: Women gathered round a table, with the portrait of a man frowning down at them.
There are other examples of post-Depression, pre-war playfulness. In Marion Greenwood's 1940 lithograph, "New Year's Eve," a cuddly young couple sit amid the trappings of a party — a balloon, a favor — with morose expressions that are the opposite of what you'd expect. The image captures the mixed emotions of excitement and regret that we feel as each year passes.
Peggy Bacon's colorful "Salubrity" (1940) shows female bathers on a sun-struck beach. The triangular composition gives the pastel a European feel amid a flurry of movement on land (a lolloping dog) and at sea (rippling waves).
Rougher waters impend in Stowe Wengenroth's "Coast Guard," a 1934 lithograph of Straitsmouth Island Coast Guard Station. The white, implacable structure withstands its harsh and moody surroundings, which include a stormy fall sky. Gene Kloss' etching, "Pentitente Fires" (1939), uses simpler forms to build atmosphere; silhouetted figures cast extra-long shadows, and pale smoke plumes from the Indian pueblos at nighttime. The darkness and shadows leave a great deal to the imagination in this introduction to a mystical ceremony.
Some of the best prints in the show are sports-related. Fletcher Martin's "The Clinch," a clean cut woodcut from 1935, catches the motion of a boxing match. White highlights imply that there's pressure on the shoulders and backs of the faceless fighters, while the audience, represented by a few background smudges, watch the bout. There's also Benton Murdoch Spruance's "Spinner Play," a 1934 lithograph that shows football players caught in action, their twisting limbs suggesting great speed and dynamism.
Dale Nichols' undated lithograph, "Company for Supper," depicts a snowbound farm frozen in time, harkening back to some simple 19th-century idyll. Wanda Gag's "Progress!" (1936, lithograph) could be its cheeky sequel, with the joys of nature suppressed by billboards, a gas station, and warped man-made structures.
The American Scene is in the rotunda, juxtaposed with the much larger, more impressive Painters of American Life. The two shows have several neat connections, and they cover a similar time period. Painters includes the work of Robert Henri, proponent of the illustrative Ashcan School. For example, Andree Ruellan's work was first displayed by Henri when she was only nine. Mabel Dwight is considered a member of the school.
There's nothing jaw-dropping in this exhibition, nothing that captures determination in the face of Depression-era gloom like the WPA photographs in the Gibbes' possession. The small size of the prints adds to its subdued feel.
With an array of landscapes and subjects, it's more like a history lesson than a paean to that era's artists. But the imaginative work of printmakers like Martin, Kloss, and Nichols make the show worth checking out.