Art History, Pennsylvania Style

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 29, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Art History, Pennsylvania Style

Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

One cannot experience the current Carnegie International, "Life on Mars," on display through Jan. 11 at Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, without engaging a bit in the history of what widely is known to be the oldest exhibition of international contemporary art in North America.

Founded in 1896, the exhibition series always was intended to be an international survey. But, few know that for seven years of that exhibition's 112-year history, the International was not international in scope at all. That's because from 1943 to 1949, exhibitions of American painting replaced the annual Carnegie International exhibition when it was suspended due to World War II.

This little-known fact would largely go unnoticed until now. That's because, today, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg opens "Painting in the United States," an exhibition that is an overview of the series of the same title organized by the Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Museum of Art) during those years.

Put together by the Westmoreland's curator, Barbara Jones, the exhibition includes 48 paintings on loan from 36 institutions, 42 of which are the actual works selected for the Carnegie exhibits in the 1940s. They include works by important and widely recognized artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Jack Levine, Andrew Wyeth and Grandma (Anna Mary Robertson) Moses, among others.

The concept, Jones says, came to her rather serendipitously as she was researching the art and life of legendary Pittsburgh painter and art instructor Samuel Rosenberg, whose work the Westmoreland featured in the 2003 retrospective exhibition "Samuel Rosenberg: Portrait of a Painter."

"I was researching his exhibitions, and I kept coming across paintings that were in 'Painting in the United States,' " Jones says. "Then, I realized how many artists that I came across (in general) that were in those shows. That's when I had the idea for this show, but decided to file it away."

Jones says that it wasn't until the last Carnegie International spanning 2004 and 2005 that she decided to pursue organizing the exhibit in earnest, timing it to coincide with "Life on Mars." And what perfect timing it is, says the Westmoreland's director-CEO Judith O'Toole. "The International draws people from the nation and around the world who we hope will be interested in viewing this historical complement and become excited about American art. These two exhibitions present such a great opportunity for comparison, " she says.

True enough: like many of the artists in "Life on Mars," many of the artists represented in this exhibit already were established in their careers and artistic styles during the war years.

Here, visitors will find such iconic works as Hopper's "Pennsylvania Coal Town" (1947) on loan from the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, Benton's "Plantation Road" (1944- 1945) from the collection of Carnegie Museum of Art, and Levine's "Welcome Home" (1946) on loan from the Brooklyn Museum.

But, more than that, they will get a chance to re-examine the work of what was a significant period in the history of American painting, a time when critics in this country were calling out for a truly American style in art.

Jones says the 1940s were a significant for its confluence of ideas and styles. "It was a volatile period in American art, when American Scene painting dominated but modes of abstraction were ascending," she says. "Artists played a vital role in trying to create an art that was truly American, as opposed to being overtly derivative of European styles."

This gave rise to art that was of a regional focus.

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