Each viewer sees a work of art through a lens of their own, whatever distillation of events and ideas informs their unique experience of the zeitgeist. It was the American modernists who gazed inward in search of universal truths that — on the canvas — could extrapolate meaning from the volatility and brutality of so-called civilization.
Reynolda House Museum of American Art is showing Hopper to Pollock, an exhibition of American modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY through May 12. Art collector Edward Wales Root donated the selection of iconic works to the institute upon his death in 1956, and they reflect his support of young artists working primarily in New York City, in contrast to most other collectors of his generation, who sought treasures from Asia and Europe. He was the son of Elihu Root, a high-powered private-sector lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who advocated for imperialist policies as a presidential cabinet member for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose across artistic disciplines in the first half of the 20th Century. In the realm of visual art, emerging artists like Jackson Pollock, Charles Burchfield and Arthur B. Davies rejected realism in favor of experimentation with form, especially through developing techniques that highlighted materials and processes. Pollock is considered the foremost exemplar of this aspect: In the late 1940s he began to drip and fling — reportedly with great control — oil and enamel paints onto canvas or paper lying flat on his studio floor. His “No. 20, 1948” hangs in a section of the gallery focused on abstract expressionism.
“Artists were experiencing these overwhelming changes — both positive and negative — in the first half of the 20th Century,” Reynolda House curator Allison Slaby says. “In addition to industrial growth and scientific progress, artists were also reacting to the horrors of two world wars, an economic depression, the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb. So they really did need to develop a new visual language to respond to all of that, those disorienting effects of modernism, and that’s how abstraction was born. Artists like Rothko and Pollock were very articulate about why they began painting the way they did: that they were accessing their psyches, they were looking to the inner life of the mind rather than external artistic material.”
Rothko’s 1947 oil on linen “Number 11 (Untitled: Abstraction),” in which of wisps of saffron punctuate muddy grays, beiges and blues, hangs in the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery at Reynolda House. Radical avant-garde painters like Arthur Dove alongside Rothko sought to evoke universal truths through non-representational forms, rejecting known symbols for aesthetic introspection. Others, like William Baziotes, continued to paint hazy semblances mined from his psychological landscape such as in “Toy,” a curious 1949 oil painting that elicits childhood memories, prodding the subconscious to confront the periwinkle iris of a long-necked creature.
The installation’s three other sections focus on landscapes, still life and figure studies, and a selection of American modernism from the private collection of Barbara Babcock Millhouse, granddaughter of tobacco-titans RJ and Katharine Reynolds, who founded the Reynolda collection and directed acquisitions.
“It really is about the perspective of one collector… Edward Wales Root,” Slaby says. “But we at Reynolda have another story to tell, and that’s the story of Barbara Babcock Millhouse. In some ways, they were interested in some overlapping artists, so we thought we had this great opportunity to display the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arthur Dove but also Reynolda’s Arthur Dove … We wanted to focus on … a different eye, looking at what Barbara was selecting approximately 50 years after Edward Root was collecting.”
Hopper to Pollock is the first installation of Root’s collection to include additional works from another private collection, each offering a more well-rounded understanding of these collectors and of American modernism.
Reynolda curators wanted to include visitors in the exhibition’s emphasis on the act of collecting art, beginning with an interactive grid of goldenrod-colored papers hanging in the gallery entryway. As an ensemble these glossy sheets spell out the exhibition’s title, but when unhooked from the wall each reveals the image and details about a specific piece from Hopper to Pollock.
“The viewer has a larger role in the art process with Modernism than ever before,” Deputy Director Phil Archer says. “The viewer brings a lot of the interpretation to the work; it can be very internal. Here, you’re having your moment to claim and interact [with the artwork]. I think that’s one piece of the idea; I think the other piece is this collecting notion. [In the gallery] you’re with one collector then the Millhouse section is another collector. What preferences, parts of [Root’s] mind and soul are reflected in what he chose? Here, you get to choose one.”
When asked about the potential for viewers to connect past to present, as visitors re-examine cultural mores and reckon with their own experiences of uncertain times, Slaby says, “One way to respond to that idea is to be encouraged that new forms of art come out of times of human toil and strife. The human response to rapid change is to create something new, so that’s an encouraging way to think about difficult periods of history.”