A couple of weeks ago I attended the opening of the new American galleries at the Huntington. The gallery space was created to house the contents of the Mansion while under renovation. Now the space has been re-purposed to house a recent focus of the Huntington's collections, American art. Various doors and windows have been punched into the facade, in an attempt to entice garden perambulators to spend sometime looking at art, as well as offering outside views and natural light into the space. If one enters through the older part of the building, it's possible to follow a fairly conventional historical timeline. Alternately, by entering the more modern looking glass wall entrance, it's possible to pick up the story closer to the first scratchings of early Modernism.The Newly Expanded Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art
The Huntington joins some other recent sprucing up of American collections. In the case of the Huntington, this has more to do with the addition of Virginia Scott Foundation's collection, but I also wonder if something else is going on here. In the conventions of the past (aka, the domino theory of art history) Greek, begat Roman, begat Early Christian, begat Medieval, begat Renaissance, begat Baroque, begat Modernism, until you get American Abstract Expressionism.Cassatt Sandwich: Mary Cassatt's Breakfast in Bed (middle)
Like the Cool School of Southern California in the 60's, the story paints a picture of a regional New York scene that emerges fully formed, like Minerva from Zeus' head. In the case of Los Angeles, the story ignores the WPA-era and G.I. Bill-educated artists that made art and taught at places like Chinouard, Otis, and Art Center, creating a milieu where the proto-cool could flourish (while still in school).
By linking American-style Modernism with earlier American artists (and their work) it becomes easier to recognise interpersonal influences as well as art historical ones. In addition, linking newer and older American work gives museums an additional place to hang older work that gets squeezed out of space set aside for contemporary art (and may have been displayed as contemporary art when first purchased).Harriet Hosmer's Queen Zenobia in Chains
Admittedly, the Huntington's collection of American art is a newer endeavour and spotty in places. In the LA Times, Christopher Knight thinks that their collection doesn't warrant all that room. To the museum's credit, gaps in the narrative are filled in with loans, including the brilliant Frankenthaler and Diebenkorn pictured above, pulled from the Norton Simon's storage cupboard. One wonders what other treasures moulder at the Norton Simon, art tucked away from its days as the Pasadena Museum of Art.Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl: Nevelson, Ruscha, Frankenthaler, Diebenkorn
In his review, Christopher Knight offers up a suggestion:
Rather than another cartoon-like Thomas Hart Benton from the 1920s, which the Huntington recently acquired, it would be great to see a Henrietta Shore floral, a Modernist pastoral landscape by Charles Reiffel and transcendental abstractions by Raymond Jonson and Agnes Pelton from the same period. These are painters not always encountered in the mainstream storyline. But their best works are better than the routine Ashcan School and Social Realist works found here. The Huntington needs to shake things up.Perhaps the Huntington could take Knight's idea one step further. In addition to Henrietta Shore, how about a Sarah Peale still life or Edmonia Lewis marble? In addition to an Agnes Pelton abstraction, what about a Lee Bontecou or Eva Hesse? The Huntington already has some strong works by women artists. Why not continue down that rarely traveled path?
The Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art are located at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. The galleries are free on the first Thursday of the month; weekend admission is twenty bucks; the weekday price is five dollars less. Summer hours at the Huntington are 10:30 to 4:30; closed on Tuesday.One of over a hundred extant portraits of G. Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart (r)