Americana Modernism; Gallery Features Depression-Era works.(ARTS)(ART)

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Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A Works Progress Administration (WPA) government program for down-and-out artists during the Depression created the most exciting, complete pictorial record of American folk and decorative arts ever produced. Despite their project's uninspiring name, the artists of the Index of American Design created inspired renderings of Americana - icons that are works of art in their own right. They're the usual images of historic weather vanes, quilts, carousel animals, toys, tavern signs and cigar-store figures - but interpreted in new ways.

Some 80 exquisite watercolors, many juxtaposed with their original models at the National Gallery of Art's "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design," demonstrate the skill of Index artists and, somewhat unexpectedly, the modernism of the art they were rendering. The show celebrates the 60th anniversary of the gallery's acquisition of the 8,000-object collection.

The gallery acquired the Index when work on the eight-year effort ceased in 1943 due to the more pressing concerns of World War II. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had also put in for the cache, but several members of Congress considered it to be a precious aesthetic and historic record compiled at taxpayer expense. They wanted it deposited in a nearby federal institution, namely the gallery.

The famed "Angel Gabriel Weather Vane" sculpture (1840), with watercolors by Index artist Lucille Chabot, opens the exhibit and demonstrates that the project was not just an antiquarian catalog. The Index's creators were all dedicated modernists: Ruth Reeves (a New York textile designer), Romana Javitz (New York Public Library Picture Collection head) and Holger Cahill (the WPA Federal Art Project's director and an authority on both American modernism and folk art). The trio wanted Americans to recognize their country's own unique, national designs - founded in visual expressions of the American communal, creative spirit - and to eventually create a unique school of American modern art.

The 1840 "Angel" is an extraordinary tour de force of iron, copper and gilt leaf. It shows the singing outlines and clear, flat patterning that later American metal sculptor David Smith used. He would have been interested in the weather vane's simple, modernist outlines and the unusual combination of metals: iron and copper for the flat, main piece; gold leaf for the covering; and the gray lead solder later used for repairs.

Angel weather vanes were much less common than horses and roosters when Gould and Hazlett of Boston made it in 1840. Now in a private collection, it once graced the steeple of the People's Methodist Church of Newburyport, Mass. When a hurricane blew off Gabriel's trumpet in 1959, it was stored in the minister's house.

Ms. Chabot's Index rendering of the angel gained fame when it was used in the design of a U.S. postage stamp in 1965. The artist's "Angel Gabriel Weather Vane: Demonstration Drawing" of watercolor and graphite is even more interesting. It shows how particularly skilled Index artists such as Ms. Chabot instructed others.

The piece illustrates the process in which an artist could begin a work with a penciled outline, then apply thin washes of watercolor until the desired effect is achieved. Ms. Chabot recalls that only high-quality Windsor and Newton colors and brushes were used and that renderings were usually made on Whatman (English-made) board - what she calls of "the best, beautiful texture. …