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  • Worcester Art Museum Presents Modern Masterworks from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

    (WORCESTER, MASS., AUGUST 31, 2001) - The Worcester Art Museum presents the superstars of 20th-century American art in a major fall exhibition, Oct. 7 through Jan. 6, 2002, on tour from the nation's capital.

    Modernism & Abstraction: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum features 64 rarely-lent paintings and sculptures by artists including Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg and David Hockney. The exhibition traces the evolution of modernism through a broad range of styles, paralleling developments in modern life over the 20th century.

    “This exhibition provides a great opportunity to survey the major modernist movements of the 20th century through artworks from one of the world's most renowned American art collections,” said David Brigham, Worcester Art Museum's director of collections and exhibitions and curator of American art. “You can see how the artists culled ideas from the European avant-garde and entwined them with trends in science, technology and commercialism to create new and exciting approaches to art-making.”

    Two currents of modern art-one emphasizing primal experience and inner spirit, the other responding to the dynamic rhythms of modern life-characterize many works in the exhibition. Max Weber's “Summer” (1909), for instance, shows frankly sexual nudes with mask-like faces lounging among thrusting trees and jagged foliage. The pulse of modern life animates H. Lyman Sayen's dancers in “The Thundershower” (1917-1918), which foreshadows the decorative patterns of art deco style. Both Weber and Sayen studied with Matisse in Paris and were among the first to introduce avant-garde styles to America.

    “As avant-garde techniques swept through Europe early in the 20th century, American artists grappled with a basic choice: participate in an international art movement or create a uniquely American style,” Brigham said. “After World War II, the rise of American political and economic power was mirrored by leadership in the arts as well. With the development of Abstract Expressionism, the center of the art world moved from Paris to New York.”

    The Artists and their works
    Many artists responded to the excitement of city life. Georgia O'Keeffe celebrated the dizzying height of New York's skyscrapers in “Cityscape with Roses” (1932), painted a few years after she took an apartment in one. Intended as a mural for Radio City Music Hall and considered lost for many years, it was discovered in O'Keeffe's studio after her death and donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

    The Machine Age inspired many 20th-century American artists. Irene Rice Pereira borrowed the forms of a powerhouse for "Machine Composition #2” (1937), creating a nontraditional cityscape. Theodore Roszak, a violinist and painter, presents a sleek modern phonograph in “Recording Sound” (1932). Amazed at the vivid presence of the music made possible by new recording technologies, he built a miniaturized opera scene in three dimensions, projecting forward from the canvas. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, believing that artists were “Utopians of genius” who could humanize industry, painted atomic structures in “Leuk 5” (1946), evoking both his recent diagnosis with cancer and reflections on the atomic bomb.

    Artists also drew upon imagery from everyday life for their paintings and sculpture. Carl Holty's “Gridiron” (1943-1944) reveals on close looking a football player kneeling for a fair catch-a lighthearted combination of formalism and sports. Stuart Davis turned grocery store food packaging into a jaunty still life in “Int'l Surface No. 1” (1960), proving that even commercial products could inspire art. Robert Rauschenberg took the idea that “anything can become art” into new territory with his “combine” paintings incorporating real objects, as in “Reservoir” (1961), in which clock faces and wheels allude to time and the artist's eye.

    Marsden Hartley, William H. Johnson and Arthur Dove each painted landscapes that vibrate with intensity. Hartley's “Yliaster (Paracelsus)” (1932)-a brilliantly colored exploding volcano-evokes mystical ideas of transformation based on writings by the medieval alchemist Paracelsus. Johnson's “Harbor under the Midnight Sun” (1937), painted in Scandinavia, uses almost hallucinatory colors to depict mountains surging up to meet an agitated sky. Dove's “Sun” (1943)-a glowing orb over undulating land-achieves a similar intensity.

    The urge to seize the essence of nature continued as a hallmark of avant-garde art. Willem deKooning's painting “The Wave” (about 1942-1944) suggests cascading bands of water, waves, and ideal forms. Isamu Noguchi's massive marble sculpture called “Grey Sun” (1967) is another exploration of the vitalistic “sun” theme, given a completely original expression.

    The abstract expressionist movement that deKooning helped launch reached its apogee in works such as Robert Motherwell's “Monster” (1959), Franz Kline's “Merce C” (1961) and Hans Hofmann's “Fermented Soil” (1965)-each canvas large enough to extend the artist's reach, a field for direct action, without careful preparatory sketches. Kenneth Noland's “Split” (1959) is actually stained into the canvas rather painted with brushes-a spontaneous way of working embraced also by Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler.

    Throughout the first half of the 20th century, modern artists moved steadily toward abstraction and spontaneity in search of a profound and fundamental approach to art. But long-repressed figurative representation reappeared among the avant-garde soon after mid-century, bursting forth in many places simultaneously. Bob Thompson's “Enchanted Rider” (1961) evokes age-old themes throughout his apocalyptic horseman, while Wayne Thiebaud's “Jackpot Machine” (1962)-slyly anthropomorphic, in shimmering red, white and blue-offers an updated American dream. Artists in California, including Paul Wonner, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira, as well as Thiebaud, were quick to put representation into their expressionist works.

    Artists of the past 20 years have worked with a rich array of styles and representational modes, creatively transforming their predecessors' insights. The title of Mark Tansey's “Interception” (1996) suggests all the possibilities of “inception” and “interaction.” Eric Fischl's disturbing “What Stands between the Artist and…” (1994) is an open-ended merging of expressionism and narrative allusion. Pat Steir's “Winter Tree” (1982)-a three-part meditation on the artist's subject and process-begins with a tree-form borrowed from Van Gogh (who borrowed it from a Japanese print) and ends with the pure abstraction of the artist's marks.

    Art with Local Connections
    While the permanent home for these masterworks is in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, several of the artists who created them had significant ties to Massachusetts. Milton Avery, Helen Frankenthaler, Marsden Hartley, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Bob Thompson all summered and painted in Provincetown on Cape Cod. Avery, Hofmann and Stuart Davis spent much time making art in Gloucester. Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L.K. Morris, who were married, built a modernist house on a 46-acre estate in Lenox, where they showcased their art and their collection of works by European artists Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and others. Finally, several of the artists are alumni of Massachusetts schools. Lois Mailou Jones attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Motherwell studied at Harvard University, Kline and Pat Steir went to Boston University and Joan Mitchell attended Smith College.

    About the Sponsors
    Modernism & Abstraction is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, touring the nation through 2002. The Principal Financial Group® is a proud partner in presenting these treasures to the American people. Worcester's presentation is sponsored by FLEXcon Company, Inc., with additional generous support provided by Paul S. and Anne (Nancy) Morgan and John and Linda Nelson. Media sponsors are the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, WSRS/WTAG Radio and Charter Communications.

    More information and full itineraries for Treasures to Go can be found on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's web site, www.AmericanArt.si.edu. For more information about the Principal Financial Group®, contact Terri Shell, Corporate Relations, at (515) 283-8858.

    The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and has evolved into the world's most important American art holdings with approximately 38,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs, folk-art objects, and 20th-century crafts. While its main building, the Old Patent Office, is closed for renovations, the museum is continuing a full program of craft exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery, located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call Smithsonian Information at (202) 357-2700.

    Museum Background

    Opened to the public in 1898, the Worcester Art Museum is the second largest art museum in New England. Its exceptional 35,000-piece collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography, prints and drawings is displayed in 36 galleries and spans 5,000 years of art and culture, ranging from Egyptian antiquities and Roman mosaics to Impressionist paintings and contemporary art. Throughout its first century, the Worcester Art Museum proved itself a pioneer: the first American museum to purchase work by Claude Monet (1910) and Paul Gauguin (1921); the first museum to bring a medieval building to America (1927); a sponsor of the first major excavation at Antioch, one of the four great cities of ancient Rome (1932); the first museum to create an Art All-State program for high school artists (1987); the originator of the first exhibition of Dutch master Judith Leyster (1993); and the first museum to focus its contemporary art programs on art of the last 10 years (1998). The Museum's hours are: Wednesday through Sunday, 11am-5pm, and Saturday 10am-5pm. Admission: FREE for members; Non-members: $8 Adults; $6 Seniors and full-time college students with current ID; FREE for youth 17 and under; FREE for everyone Saturday mornings 10am-noon sponsored by The TJX Companies and Massachusetts Electric Company. For more information, call (508) 799-4406 or visit the Museum at 55 Salisbury Street in Worcester.

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