James Castle: No Place Like Home
September 26, 2014
Untitled: The Art of James Castle opens today at American Art and features fifty-four works by the artist that were recently acquired by the museum. The exhibition remains on view through February 1, 2015.
In conjunction with the show, the exhibition curator and the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of Decorative Art and Craft, Nicholas Bell, will moderate a discussion with Lynne Cooke, senior curator, National Gallery of Art; Jacqueline Crist, managing partner, James Castle Collection and Archive; Frank Del Deo, managing partner, James Castle Collection and Archive and, member, Del Deo & Barzune LLC Art Advisory; and Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art, as they explore Castle’s remarkable artistic vision. The discussion will take place October 2 at 6:30 p.m. here at the museum. It will also be webcast live.
James Castle was born in Idaho in 1899 and died there in 1977. Profoundly deaf since birth, Castle, unlike his siblings who were destined to work on the family farm, found himself picking up tools to make art at a young age, his way of negotiating day-to-day life. As he grew he used the materials found at home: scraps of paper, food packaging (the back of an ice-cream container or the wrapping from frozen spinach), and whatever else he could find. He also, unconventionally, used soot and saliva, to create many of his works on paper.
According to Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the museum and co-author of the exhibition catalogue, his subject matter was composed of the following, "...Western style barns tucked against mountains, parked horse buggies, wallpapered bedrooms with mirrored dressers and cast-iron beds, stocked kitchen pantries, doorways and doorknobs, the mailroom his parents operated out of the family home, street scenes and power lines, the cemetery." From these humble beginnings, Castle managed to capture the people and places around him in visually complex interiors and exteriors. He also created his own books with their own alphabets and syllabary: in effect, he created his own world.
Eric Fischl: Painting Stories
September 24, 2014
Having titled his recent memoir Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas, Eric Fischl kicked off this season's annual Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series with a survey of his work, spanning more than forty years. From art school to the heady days of being an art star in New York City in the 1980s, to his life and current work on Long Island where he lives with his wife, painter April Gornik, Fischl's eye and intelligence were apparent. The bad boy is now 66, with a mane of white hair—more eminence than troublemaker.
Fischl began the talk by showing us an abstract painting he struggled to complete in art school, a painting that he said changed his life, and became "the muse" that he built his career on. So frustrated by the process that he poured turpentine on the canvas, and where the paint disappeared, he painted a shape that resembled a house, a room, a bed, or all of the above. As Fischl began to explore figuration, that shape became both sign and symbol for the artist, as his work over the decades often features lovers in rooms, on beds ("the bed as arena"), caught in a moment in time. Like paintings by Edward Hopper—albeit with fewer clothes—Fischl strips down his subjects to create a painting as well as a psychological portrait.
From decade to decade, from room to room, exteriors and interiors, Fischl shared with us his lifelong relationship with figurative painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Glassine works from the 1980s gave Fischl the opportunity to talk about his creative process and how to assemble a narrative. Other works include celebrity portraiture, such as the Francesco Clemente family portrait, (currently on view on the third floor of the museum) and an upcoming series on art fairs. Fischl offered fascinating insights into the Clemente portrait and the role each family member plays in creating the narrative, deliberately or unwittingly. Martha Graham famously said, "movement never lies." After hearing Fischl's talk, I'm wondering if the same thing could be said about paint.
In case you missed Fischl's talk, you can watch the webcast.
On October 22, Jerry Saltz will be the next speaker in the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series.
American Muralist Tom Lea
September 23, 2014
On September 24, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will co-host a national conference that examines the importance of preserving WPA-era murals using the work of celebrated American muralist Tom Lea as a case study. The conference has been organized by the Tom Lea Institute, and in anticipation of the conference, Programs Coordinator Allison Jessing spoke with Adair Margo, former Chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities during the two-term Presidency of George W. Bush, and Founder and President of the Tom Lea Institute. The conference is free and open to the public, but advance registration is recommended.
Eye Level: Tom Lea was a prolific muralist and acclaimed author, but not widely known outside of Texas. Can you tell us a little more about him?
Adair Margo: It's funny, when I was chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, I mentioned Tom Lea in D.C. I found many people did know him. David McCullough was pleased to meet Sarah Lea when George and Laura Bush dedicated the Oval Office with Tom's painting Rio Grande on the wall. He said Tom introduced him to the romance of the West through novels like The Wonderful Country and illustrations for J. Frank Dobie's The Longhorns.
Military leaders knew the eye-witness paintings he did during World War II for LIFE magazine, remembering how they lined the walls of the Pentagon before 9/11. They never forgot them. Legislators knew his portrait of Sam Rayburn in the Rayburn Building, and some even remembered his 1936 mural The Nesters in the Ben Franklin Post Office (now the Ariel Rios Building) on Pennsylvania Avenue before it was lost in the 1950s. With its larger than life figures of a dust bowl couple, that mural left an impression, just as his murals across the United States inspired pride in regional heritage when painted in the 1930s and '40s. They still do, when people are aware they are still there.
Of course, we from Texas knew him best because he was from El Paso and he chose to stay here, drawing his nourishment from a place so spacious and bare. Robert Caro told me at the 2007 Texas Book Festival that "Tom Lea was an unsung genius of our time who made it purely on the quality of his work." He undoubtedly was and did.
EL: How did you come to discover the works of Tom Lea?
AM: First, I knew Tom Lea the man. In fact, my great-grandfather baptized him when he was eight years old, and my grandmother went to high school with him. Our families were friends, and I came to know his work growing up in El Paso. His Southwest mural was in a reading room of our public library dedicated to books on our region, and his Pass of the North mural, with giants of El Paso's Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo history, was in our Federal Courthouse. It had a powerful impact on a child.
In El Paso, there's a mountain in the middle of our city and every December we would light a star on it to usher in Christmas. Tom Lea would read his beautiful Old Mount Franklin on television and we would look to the mountain to see the lighting of the star.
His work helped shape me as a youngster growing up in El Paso, and I felt privileged when he called to ask me to help him with his work in 1993. He'd never had anyone represent him before. Instead, he had a list of people who would wait until they received his call telling them a painting was available. He entrusted over 400 drawings to me the same year the University of Texas at El Paso asked me to record his oral history. Going over the mountain to his home every Saturday morning for two hours over a six month period was a wonderful experience, and those weekly visits changed to Monday evenings, continuing until his death in 2001.
EL: Do you have a favorite Lea work? What about it makes it special to you?
AM: The portrait he did of his wife, Sarah, following World War II is unforgettably beautiful. Tom named it Sarah in the Summertime, and he said he painted it as if lighting a votive candle in the gratefulness of being home. During the war he carried a photograph of Sarah standing in the back yard of their home, and as he traveled to theaters of war, he would look at it with a distant kind of worship. When he came home, he had Sarah pose in the same dress and he spent two years painting her, taking twenty-six days just to paint the pattern of the little flowers on her dress. Her solidity and serenity say a lot about her constancy.
I especially love it because it shows how the effects of war need not darken a person's soul. In Tom's case, the terror he experienced sharpened his appreciation of the things he loved most at home. He knew he couldn't paint Mount Franklin while the rest of the world was on fire, but he knew when he returned home, he would know all the more what Mount Franklin meant to him. He certainly knew what Sarah meant to him and said without hesitation at the end of his life that Sarah in the Summertime was his greatest work. He went on to say that the reason why he loved it most was because he knew her.
EL: Are there any anecdotes about Tom Lea you can share with us?
AM: When I opened Adair Margo Gallery in 1985, I went to visit Tom Lea at his home. Because of my respect for him, I was seeking his blessing. With initial notions of exhibiting what was "innovative" and "new," I remember his discomfort with my words. "Artistic vision" and "contemporary expression" meant nothing to him, but a belief in knowledge, diligence and skill most certainly did. His truthfulness gave me a perspective I needed, and the beginnings of a much stronger footing.
EL: Where can people learn more about Tom Lea and his works?
AM: The largest repository of his art and writing is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin, people can also see his work in the Texas State Capitol, at the Blanton Museum, and his cenotaph with Mount Franklin on Republic Hill at the Texas State Cemetery. The Bullock Texas State History Museum will host an exhibition of his work in October 2015.
Tom Lea's World War II paintings for LIFE magazine are in the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, though in storage. Some are being conserved in order to travel to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg in October 2015. In D.C., American Art has the beautiful Southwest study for the El Paso Public Library mural on view in the Luce Foundation Center; the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill has Sam Rayburn's portrait; and the State Department has a portrait of Benito Juarez in its Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
In El Paso, the El Paso Museum of Art has a Tom Lea Gallery with some of his work, though most is in storage and can be seen by appointment. The University of Texas at El Paso Special Collections has an archive of his papers and will be acquiring his letters to J. Frank Dobie. El Paso also has murals in the El Paso Public Library and the Historic Federal Courthouse. The Tom Lea Institute, established to perpetuate his legacy, hosts Tom Lea Month annually and named a Tom Lea Trail, which connects eleven Texas cities through his art, crossing the border at El Paso. Its website is a good resource, as are several booklets it has published, including J.P. Bryan's Tom Lea and Texas.
Tom Lea's public murals are in Chicago; Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas: Dallas, Texas; Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Odessa Texas; and Seymour, Texas.
His novels The Wonderful Country and The Brave Bulls are still in print, as is his two volume history of The King Ranch, which the ranch distributes. His other books, The Hands of Cantu about the arrival of the first horses in America with the Spanish, written in English as if spoken Spanish, can be found on ABE books online. To get an expansive look at his life, A Picture Gallery, published by Little, Brown and Company on ABE is great, as is the oral history I recorded, Tom Lea, An Oral History, published by Texas Western Press. Tom Lea spoke at the DeGolyer Library at SMU in 1992, a presentation they published called The Southwest is Where I Live. I go back to that little booklet over and over again. Also, in Texas A&M University Press' The Two Thousand Yard Stare, Tom Lea's World War II, Marine aviator Brendan Greeley compiled his World War II work for LIFE.
EL: Thank you! This conference is going to be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about a fantastic artist!IMAGE: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=71561
Lunder Conservation Center: Revealing A Drawing Through Preservation
September 18, 2014
In our Lunder Conservation Center, our fellow, Im Chan, has been working for months assessing and treating a group of prints and drawings by William H. Johnson. Ms. Chan removes any potentially damaging materials that were added after the artist finished the piece. With Johnson's Boy's Sunday Trip, the drawing was previously adhered to an acidic paperboard backing (an acidic backing can result in a deterioration of the artwork).
When she began removing the backing, she discovered a surprise on the work's verso (back side): a previously unknown drawing. We're not yet sure what the purpose of this drawing was. Perhaps it was an early draft of a new mural. Future research remains to be done.
Artist Lilly Martin Spencer
September 16, 2014
Erin Benz interned at American Art's Luce Foundation Center this summer. While here, she took the time to write about one of her favorite artists in our collection, Lilly Martin Spencer.
I first became interested in the painter, Lilly Martin Spencer, when I learned about her in my sophomore art history class. Amongst the many mid-nineteenth century male artists who we were learning about Spencer was one of the only female artists we studied. Immediately, I became intrigued as to how a woman was able to succeed in a predominately male field while being a mother and wife at the same time. Her paintings also interested me as they were beautifully detailed, yet frequently included a comical aspect which, combined, made viewing her paintings fun. Spencer's painting, We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian) is on display here at American Art and always catches my eye when I wander past it. The beautiful fabric and exquisite details make me stop and take in this painting's magnificence.
Lilly Martin Spencer was born in England in 1822 and immigrated to the United States ten years later. Spencer was unique as she was a female painter who lived off of her work and was the sole provider for her family. Her husband, Benjamin Spencer, did not have a job and mainly helped his wife as a business manager. In order to make a living off of her paintings, Spencer decided to paint popular genre scenes that would sell better than her previous allegorical paintings. By taking her everyday experiences from home, she was able to move from her old subject matter to her new. With thirteen children, Spencer had to balance making a living and being a mother at a time when women's jobs were clearly domestic while their husbands worked. Though genre painting eventually fell out of fashion, Spencer is still considered one of America's greatest genre painters.
See! From those priceless jewels in her bower,
The queenly Beauty turns her neck away,
And Eyes that pale not 'neath the diamond's ray,
Muse in their loveliness on one sweet flower—
Whose bloom alas! Has reach'd its fated hour.
Spencer's 1869 painting, We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian), can be seen on the second floor of the museum. In it, Spencer depicts a beautiful young woman surrounded by jewels and clothed in layers of expensive blue fabric. Great detail is given to the design of the dress and, at 6 feet tall, commands the viewer's attention while showing off Spencer's great skill. Though the subject appears to be wealthy and have many suitors (as the jewels appear to suggest), Spencer implies that her beauty is only temporary and will eventually disappear. As the flower is her hand wilts, she too will eventually succumb to life's ultimate price: time.