Figure and field

Our greatest painters reveal the evolution of the American identity.

Once again, the Tacoma Art Museum has proven itself to be a powerhouse in our region's art scene, bringing an important collection that has never been outside the Wichita Art Museum. In 1915, Louise Caldwell Murdock, a powerful Kansas businesswoman, bequeathed her estate to fund an art collection. Since then, the Murdock collection has become a codex of our nation's identity and a reflection of some of the brightest stars of American art history.

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) broke with traditional portraiture by portraying subjects like Billy Smith, a prizefighter with an ugly mug. Smith's shallow-browed, jug-eared head atop his wiry body looks like an apple pierced by a pencil, but he lives and breathes. For Eakins and other artists, the enormous vitality of these working-class figures represented an essential quality of the American identity.

Our Nation's Colors: A Celebration of American Painting

Tacoma Art Museum

ends March 28

Social realism gave an extra force to the quest for identity, focusing on the human consequences of larger economic and social trends. Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), born to wealth, brought a poetic touch to his pictures of the city's downtrodden and debased. Red Curtain is a mesmerizing burlesque scene, with a blowzy, fleshy woman dancing before a sodden crowd. The Bowery is a commentary on a cold city, where homeless gray men, their skin as grained as driftwood, lean on lampposts under the El.

The harsh poverty of rural America echoes in Charles Burchfield's (1893-1967) art. His interpretation of American identity through landscape is intensely personal but socially aware as well; he could have been the first social surrealist. Abandoned Coke Ovens shows a mining town, relinquished to decay. The poisonous, rose-colored ovens gape in the foreground like a giant's toothless maw. The tumbledown shacks nearby are also empty, but their facades trace the outlines of human faces, with windows like blind eyes and screaming doors for mouths. Burchfield's December Twilight depicts another small town, deserted and forsaken, with the spooky feeling of a remembered dream. Dry trees and grasses tremble in a black wind. The house in the center is transparent, and an evil yellow light shines through from the stormy sky beyond.

The Great Depression and two world wars sustained a larger change: the urbanization of America. Foreign- and native-born Americans swarmed to the cities by the millions. Artists of the period captured the immigrants' anticipation of the city's excitement, but also the sharp tug of nostalgia they felt for the land.

Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) In the Mowing shows three children in a field, standing straight as cornstalks. Turning away from the farm they stare at a row of houses: the city in its purest symbolic form. These are literally children of the soil, with featureless faces the color of earth—burnt umber and red clay. The sky above the houses is an achingly deep blue, as limitless in promise as the future. It's a quiet moment, but a final one: To Homer and his subjects, the farmland is already a memory.

1920s artists such as Maurice Brazil Prendergast (The Holiday) and Lawrence Beall Smith (Ring Around the Chimney) celebrated the new entertainments and occupations offered by the cities, documenting how time was passed and lives were lived.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was the foremost artist to explore the effects of urban context on character. Walking Broadway by day and night, he painted the life he saw in shops, factories, and on the streets. Sunlight on Brownstone is the omega to Homer's alpha. The city's promise is broken, leaving Hopper's Americans lonely and desolate. A young urban couple sits on a brownstone stoop, looking back on the nature left behind—now tamed in the form of a city park. In contrast to the blurred, thick figures of In the Mowing, these are young marble giants. Hard and sharp, their faces and bodies echo the rigid lines of the city's austere environment.

The precisionist school is represented here, too; its flat, hard-edged colors and forms suggest the end of the search for identity in the figure's relation to landscape. Charles Sheeler's Skyline (1950) has the cold abstraction of an architectural rendering. No one has ever lived in a precisionist city, and no one ever will.

The American identity is volatile and uncertain. In a society with few ties of blood or tradition, we take on the forms we find, like costumes in a burlesque. Jack Levine's Medicine Show IV (1958) captures this theatrical quality in his picture of a huckster selling snake oil to a crowd of rubes. The scantily dressed women who assist him pinwheel and whirl like Fourth of July fireworks, but at the center of the painting is the charlatan's face, obscured by shadow. Levine observes both the importance of spectacle in American identity and the emptiness at its heart.

The Murdock collection focuses largely on representational, realist art that explored identity through the relation of figure to field. By midcentury, abstract expressionism began a new search for identity, turning from the exterior landscape of the city to the uncharted country of the inner soul. Walt Kuhn's Acrobat in White and Silver (1944), caught on the border between these two landscapes, stares out from the canvas. The American identity is reflected in his uneasy, abstracted eyes.

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