“The American Spirit: Painting and Sculpture From the Santa Barbara Museum of Art" would be a good standalone exhibition but, lucky visitors, it's but one of two very fine ones now at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Several weeks ago, I reviewed "In Living Color: Andy Warhol and Contemporary Printmaking," also at the Tampa Museum, which by itself is worth the admission. While the word "bargain" isn't usually associated with museums, you're getting one, especially when you factor in the ever-present antiquities from the permanent collection.
Another benefit of "The American Spirit" is that it has a more gentle entry point for people who struggle with contemporary art. It's representational, with 50 paintings and sculptures more about stylistic and thematic currents than jolts of experimentation and abrupt veers from tradition. All the art dates from the 1830s, before the Civil War, into the early 1920s after the end of World War I.
In the United States, those decades saw an inexorable march westward, the growth of cities, the rise of wealthy industrialists, optimism and angst in equal measure. All are represented here. The works are organized around six themes that seem forced on occasion. One, "Still Life and Trompe L'oeil Painting in the Fin de Siecle," stands out because it doesn't seem to make a convincing statement, acting more as a collecting point for still lifes in the show that fit the timeline. Most, though, reflect the times in which they were created.
Inclusion of 19th century landscapes is a given since they were symbolic touchstones for all that was good and promising about the young nation. The grandeur and vastness of it unfolded during western expansion, and painters used majestic scenes as symbolic touchstones rendered with accuracy. The big guns are represented: Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran, for example, and their awe-inspiring vistas usually include a human presence — or the suggestion of one — in humbling proportion. By the end of the 19th century, landscape paintings such as George Inness' Morning, Catskill Valley and its flaming autumn trees inject a more overt spirituality.
Though sentimentality was a hallmark of many narrative or genre works of the time, they began also to address the reality of a growing urban underclass, a combination seen in John George Brown's Boy Fishing and Charles Blauvelt's portrait of an immigrant in Homeward Bound From New York. In Brown's Pull for Shore, the men in a rowboat are presented in a more straightforward way, but avoiding the bleak realities that existed for poor working people. (Note to the Santa Barbara Museum: I sure wish you had a Caleb Bingham in your collection. His depictions of the West are both landscape and portraiture and would have been excellent illustrations of your theses.)
"Cosmopolitanism in the Gilded Age" gives us the upside of all the new money at the turn of the century. A Childe Hassam painting of the Manhattan Club and the swells walking around it, the interior of his brother's Boston house by Walter Gay and William Merritt Chase's portrait of his wife, all excellent, aren't voyeuristic (they were painted at a time when those who would have seen them were social equals) or aspirational (ditto).
Combining works representing the "Closing of the Frontier" and those for the "Dawn of Mass Entertainment" into a single theme was a stretch for me in some instances, but I appreciated the unexpected juxtapositions. Frederic Remington's heroic bronze mountain man (1903) seems a long way from Louis Eilshemius's disaffected patrons in the vaguely unsavory painting Plaza Theatre (1915), which calls to mind the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret. They're separated by just 12 years but we see the nostalgia and romance for a vanishing way of life and the strengths of individualism contrasted with a competing cynicism and sense of isolation.
The show ends with an homage to the Eight, a group of early 20th century artists who participated in a controversial exhibition in 1908. Robert Henri was the most prominent, already part of a loose confederation of artists that came to be called the Ashcan School. Henri and others of his thinking (including John Sloan, William Glackens, Everett Shinn and George Luks, also in the Eight show) rebelled against the gentility of styles such as American impressionism (see Hassam in an earlier gallery) and a staid academic rigor (ditto Gay).
As Henri wrote: "Paint should be as real as mud." His Derricks on the North River is a far cry from the Manhattan Club. So is George Bellows' Steaming Streets, another dark urban landscape in which a trolley, spooked horse and onlookers combine. (Bellows wasn't in the Eight show but was an important part of Henri's circle.) Among other artists who weren't as tight with the Ashcans that were included in the Eight show was Maurice Prendergast; his Summer in the Park is a bright frolic composed of paint dashes that have no resemblance to mud.
I opined at the beginning of this review that "American Spirit" is a good show, and throughout I have offered criticisms that perhaps indicate it isn't. I repeat: This is a good show. I think some of the thematic groupings overpromise and underdeliver, but that doesn't detract from the true chronological and historical flow. You'll find important names but usually not their most important work. Sometimes more interesting than the masterpieces by a well-known artist are the less representative ones that indicate early promise and influences. That's why I liked Winslow Homer's Woman in Autumn Woods. The exhibition has a story to tell and it's a good read.
Contact Lennie Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.