Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection
If you’re not familiar with the process, building an art collection probably seems like a pretty straightforward proposition. You identify works that you like and then you buy them, repeating as necessary. Simple. Sure, knowledge helps, and so does money, but at it’s heart collecting art is just another transaction governed by the cool logic of supply, demand, and consumer behavior, right? It can’t be all that different than buying curtains or furniture can it?
Well it can, and it is. It turns out collecting art is less a transaction and more a vocation; less about a thing you do and more about who you are. If you get serious about collecting, prepare for things to get unwieldy, all consuming even. The collection will take on a life of its own as you consider gaps, identify areas of focus, and target particular artists. The collection changes, and in a way, so does the collector. While the transactional element remains (money has to change hands at some point after all), it’s almost an afterthought; that thing you have to do in service of the collection.
Collecting art is also an endeavor built very much on relationships; relationships with gallerists, museums, artists, other collectors, curators, and art historians. This network of relationships helps inform the collector, educate the collector, and (if it’s doing its job) add value to the collection. It’s those relationships with Columbus collectors, curators and gallerists that are in large part responsible for bringing us Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection. For that we should be grateful.
John and Susan Horseman have amassed a collection of over 200 paintings focusing on American art between the World War One and World War Two; a period marked by The Depression, mounting tensions in Europe, and a shift from the agrarian to the urban. It was also a period that witnessed great changes in art. Painters puzzled over modernism, wrestled with abstraction and negotiated their place alongside the ever expanding role of photography and film. Modern Dialect presents 68 paintings that rightly capture this era in all it’s varied and sprawling splendor.
I say varied because the first thing viewers will notice is the wide range of styles presented. This is not a collection that focuses on a particular movement or genre. Examples of American Regionalism live side by side with American abstraction. Gritty industrial scenes hang in proximity to bucolic landscapes. The joy of a Thanksgiving Day parade gives way to the despondency of the unemployment line. Presented in this manner, viewers are offered an exhibition that’s as much about American history as it is art history. That the works focus on a time period, rather than stylistic considerations, widens the lens. It breaks down barriers and provides a range of comparisons that’s not often presented when works from this era are discussed.
What’s more, it’s a show that offers the joy of discovery. Those familiar with The Columbus Museum of Art know well its focus on American art in the first half of the 20th Century. Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes notes Modern Dialect is “very much in sympathy with the Museum’s American collection”, and she’s right. Modern Dialect complements that collection, and then goes further. Rest assured, the usual suspects have been rounded up. Marsden Hartley, Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, and George Bellows are all in the mix, but so too are some new acquaintances like Doris Emrick Lee, Arthur Durston and Gertrude Abercrombie. It’s in these works and others like them that Modern Dialect really shines.
Gertrude Abercrombie’s Night Arrives perfectly captures that combination of haunting naivete that is evident in so much of her work. Not as widely recognized as many artists on view, Abercrombie further cements Chicago’s reputation for churning out artists of singular and self-directed vision (see also Joseph Yoakum, Lee Grodie, and Henry Darger).
Similarly, Doris Emrick Lee’s The View, Woodstock, presents a scene that at first blush appears to offer little more than a whimsical and folksy view of rural life. A closer look reveals something much more sophisticated. The curtains (barely noticeable at first) suggests a reference to Charles Wilson Peale’s famous painting The Artist in His Museum while the background beyond the mountains stand in as an homage to 40’s style abstraction reminiscent of Miro.
Modern Dialect also offers an affirmation of place. Many of the artists represented in the exhibition worked in the Midwest, painting scenes and recording the lives they observed there. Think of it as the flyover states under a microscope and in all their weird and gritty glory. It’s refreshing and a stark reminder of how much more geographically democratic the art world was prior to post-war pull of New York and California. William Sommer, Clyde Singer, and Hazel Janicki Teyral all had ties to Ohio and are all included in this exhibition. So too are artists who worked in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana.
In the context of exhibitions, Modern Dialect is not a blockbuster. It’s not Rothko, Toulouse-Latrec, Degas, or any of the other high profile artists the Columbus Museum of Art has exhibited in recent years. For my money, that’s a good thing. Museums aren’t just cultural institutions, they’re educational institutions. It’s not enough for them to present that which we already know. They have to show us something new, something different, and something unexpected. Modern Dialect does exactly that. It illustrates a place, a time, and a set of experiences in the way only painting can. Go see it.
Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection is on view at The Columbus Museum of Art through August 31st. For more information visit www.columbusmuseum.org.
MARSDEN HARTLEY (1877-1943)
The Seashell, 1929
Oil on canvas
17 ½ x 14 ½ inches
ARTHUR OSVER (1912-2006)
Red Ventilator, 1945
Oil on masonite
29 ½ x 24 inches
CARL GAERTNER (1898-1952)
Second Floor, Back, 1938
Oil on canvas
42 x 60 inches
DORIS EMRICK LEE (1905-1983)
The View, Woodstock, 1946
Oil on canvas
27 ½ x 44 inches
GERTRUDE ABERCROMBIE (1909-1977)
Night Arrives, 1948
Oil on masonite
20 x 26 inches