The American Evolution: A History through Art

USA TODAY, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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The American Evolution: A History through Art

"THE AMERICAN Evolution: A History through Art" showcases more than 200 objects in a wide range of media, dating from the colonial period to modern times. "It is not size and scope alone that distinguishes [this exhibition]. The display also purposefully rejects the chronological structure of traditional art historical surveys in favor of a thematic model that highlights continuities in American artistic production and culture from the colonial era to the present day," notes Emily Shapiro, assistant curator of American Art at the Corcoran Gallery.

The term "evolution" suggests change over time, and this exhibit proposes that the U.S. is a dynamic nation in a constant state of redefinition. From Gilbert Stuart's stately 18th-century portrait of George Washington to Andy Warhol's irreverent 1973 likeness of former Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, from Frederic Edwin Church's dramatic 1857 view from the brink of Niagara Falls to Richard Diebenkom's abstract 1975 rendering of the suburban expanses of Ocean Park, Calif., the exhibition explores many of the ways that American life and art have developed over the past 250 years.

"This exhibition has work that will appeal to everyone, from people interested in traditional American painting and history to those more drawn to contemporary art and culture," maintains Sarah Newman, assistant curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran. "It provides a tour of most of the great developments in American art over the past two centuries, but it also puts them into a context which throws new light on old favorites."

There are a number of iconic works in a variety of genres. The display features stately Colonial-era portraits by Stuart and John Singleton Copley; elegant neoclassical marble sculptures by Hiram Powers and William Rinehart; outstanding Hudson River School paintings by Thomas Cole and Sanford Gifford; grand Western subjects by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington; light-filled landscapes and figure paintings by Impressionists Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Childe Hassam; stunning examples of early modernism by Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis; important post-war abstractions by Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko; minimalist and post-minimalist treasures by Ellsworth Kelly, Gene Davis, and Martin Puryear; and contemporary works by Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker.

This exhibition explores Americans' use of visual images as a means to describe and understand the world around them. This extensive presentation will encourage a closer examination of the relationship between art and history. The works stand on their own as outstanding examples of the major styles, subjects, and movements of U.S. art history, yet they also are cultural artifacts that have much to teach visitors about themselves as well as their national identity and evolving nation.

The exhibit is arranged in light of five themes that have shaped American culture: Money, Land, Politics, Cultural Exchange, and The Modern World. These themes are fundamental to the development of the U.S., as well as to the stories that have become central to the country's national identity. As demonstrated in this exhibition, art plays a crucial role in telling these stories.

Money. The lure of money long has held powerful sway over American culture. The settlers who established the North American colonies were motivated as much by a desire for economic opportunity as by the promise of political and religious freedom, and the colonies' economic subordination to England was one of the primary motivations for the American Revolution. As the U.S. developed into a global superpower, the ideal of free enterprise continued to shape the nation's political, social, and cultural agendas.


Economic interests directly informed the earliest American art. Painting in the colonies was limited almost exclusively to portraiture, a genre that developed alongside and bolstered the burgeoning consumer society.

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