In an act of uncharacteristic humility, the Whitney Museum called its 2015 reopening show “America Is Hard to See.” It was an acknowledgement that a country as complex as ours is difficult to comprehend. A survey of American art is always going to be highly selective and heavily curated — a story told by a participant-observer with his or her own perspective on a monstrously difficult subject.
At the Newark Museum of Art, the curators are less bashful. Their survey of national art, which stretches over two floors and many galleries, is called “Seeing America.” It is hard not to applaud their confidence. (Maybe it is a little easier to get a handle on the country from the Garden State than it is from New York: Manhattan, after all, is an island off the coast of America, while New Jersey is where the continent begins.) Unlike the Whitney show — which felt, at times, detached and diagnostic — “Seeing America” is a candid report from the midst of the whirlwind. The modern works on the second floor of the museum and the reimagined 18th and 19th century galleries are vigorous confrontations with our checkered history. They embrace our national turbulence. Sometimes they even make sense of it.
“Seeing America,” overseen by senior American Art curator Tricia Bloom, completes an ongoing act of provocation by the Museum — one that is felt more keenly the further back in time the galleries take us. The curators juxtapose art from the colonial and antebellum eras with pieces created in the past few years. The gentle rhythms of a room of landscape paintings, for instance, are interrupted by works meant to complicate our understanding of what landscape painters are doing, and call attention to their habit of leaving human beings out of their scenes altogether. A portrait gallery of oils of founding fathers and mothers is enlivened, and challenged, by a 21st photograph of the Native American artist Wendy Red Star in a similar pose.
In doing this, the museum means to amplify marginalized voices and call attention to those who have been shut out of mainstream accounts of American history. That’s commendable. But it has another objective, too: to prove that New Jersey artists, and contemporary artists supported by the museum, can go toe to toe with the canonized. “Seeing America” contains plenty of remarkable pieces by artists who might well have been in that Whitney show, including a typically mysterious Edward Hopper scene, a gorgeous Reconstruction-era oil by Winslow Homer, and a giant five-panel stunner by the bridge-obsessed Italian American futurist Joseph Stella. Bloom and the Newark curators have placed them in conversation with newer pieces that, rather often, sass back.
Does that sound cheeky? Sometimes it is. Purists looking for rehash, or reassurance, may find “Seeing America” uncomfortable. Immersion in this two-floor show — and it is an experience that demands, and rewards, surrender to the curators’ logic — is not for those who can’t enjoy productive tension.
A lash of dark paint on a giant canvas by the abstract expressionist master Robert Motherwell, for instance, is echoed from across a doorway by a recent painting that matches its energy and electricity. It is by New Jersey’s own Mashell Black, an exhibitor at Newark’s Akwaaba Gallery and other local art spaces. Restrained nineteenth century works are given a good shake by Newark sculptor Adebunmi Gbadebo, who contributes a row of her framed amalgams of African American hair and indigo dye. Museum favorite Terence Hammond surrounds a delicate, classically inspired statue of a Greek slave (one of the prizes of the permanent collection) with wallpaper adorned with the faces of abolitionists; Princeton-educated Ron Norsworthy challenges hagiographic illustrations of Mount Vernon with an ambivalent version of his own.
Jersey artists angle their way into the arguments all over the exhibition, including Somerville-born, Newark-raised Willie Cole, who leads with the spear-tip sizzle of his red-hot iron, and Orange’s quietly confrontational Bisa Butler, who stitches fabric from West Africa into a brilliant, radiant portrait of an African American family on the move. Stroke by stroke and stitch by stitch, these local heroes demonstrate that they deserve to be in this company, and that their own personal versions of American history are as valid as anything in a textbook.
Along the way, we are reminded of some inglorious episodes in the national story — and the Garden State story, too. New Jersey soldiers fought the Confederacy, but we’ve got a history of our own slavery to live down. We waited until 1866, longer than any other Northern state, before we mandated emancipation. Four score and seven years earlier, those fleeing from bondage to the relative safety of the British Army were ordered back to their masters by George Washington himself. One of the most chilling and powerful pieces in “Seeing America” is Kenseth Armstead’s apocalyptic drawing “Surrender Yorktown,” a riposte to Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe’s famous bloodless images of redcoats laying down arms amid general jubilation, including depictions of dancing slaves. Armstead strips everything untrue from the popular image of Yorktown, leaving nothing but a grey, war-blasted landscape.
Yet “Seeing America” is not derogatory — or even revolutionary. Bloom and her partners show respect to the old masters of American art. This exhibition makes a convincing case that straight talk and a genuine reckoning with the past makes everything shine brighter and cut deeper.
The precisionism of Charles Sheeler begins to feel a little more like an expression of anxiety about social control. Norman Lewis’ deconstructed human figures, stretched and pulled into shapes suggestive of flags and wires, speak eloquently of protest, the speed of modernity, and the honor in struggle. Carlos Mérida’s angular figures, impassive as Mayan warriors but rendered in city colors, cling to cultural identity even as the New World attempts to strip it from them.
Even the bucolic landscapes of the Hudson River School are shadowed by uncertainty and insecurity about how the pristine countryside would be developed.
That ambiguity is the beauty of “Seeing America.” Our nation is a tumultuous place — a land of breathtaking majesty and uncommon depravity. Our visual poets have always been in touch with both extremes. To access the greatness of American art, we need to be honest about American history.
The reinvigorated galleries at the Newark Museum of Art don’t try to be comprehensive. That would be impossible. But they do tell a coherent story about a complicated country: maybe not one that a jingoist would want to hear, but an exhibition with plenty to appeal to an open-minded patriot.
Tricia Bloom has created a context in which world-famous painters and local heroes shine. Better than that: They reinforce each other’s strengths and deepen each other’s messages.
For more information, visit newarkmuseumart.org.
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