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Modern in America


Although I was saddened by the departure of the James Castle exhibition from the newish Prints and Drawings galleries (124-127), the Prints and Drawings curators have now installed the space with Modern in America: Works on Paper, 1900–1950s, an exhibition of modern works from the department’s collection. The exhibition is a visually rich complement to the Art Institute’s new catalogue, American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago: From World War I to 1955, prepared by the Department of American Art.

Martha Tedeschi, the Prints and Drawings curator who organized the exhibition, was kind enough to walk me through the galleries and discuss how she selected and arranged the works. Whenever possible, she chose prints and drawings featured in the American Modernism catalogue, such as Rufino Tamayo’s 1943 work The Fruit Vendor, pictured above. She then looked for other notable works by artists in the catalogue. Finally, the exhibition was completed by choosing a broad range of works that played off of other works in visually and/or historically interesting ways.


The resulting exhibition is a series of visually compelling and playful juxtapositions that explore modern ideas and techniques developed in America during the first half of the 20th Century. The intent, Martha explained, was to highlight how America served as a great melting pot, where Americans and foreign-born artists discovered and evolved many different approaches to creating modern art. For example, one room contains works by African-American artists who studied with Mexican muralists, alongside works by such muralists. Another room shows how the homegrown American medium, watercolor, was adapted to modern times. Among the other groups of works are a great set of works by George Bellows of boxers and dancers (in an insane asylum); a wall of “street walkers” by artists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Demuth, including the Hopper watercolor pictured above; a gallery of abstract works that fall into the category of classic Modernism; and a wall of black-and-white lithographs with almost-supernatural images of nature, including the John Steuart Curry print pictured below.


Also on view is a collection of working drawings and studies done by Peter Blume for his masterpiece, The Rock, the copyright status of which I previously wrote about here. One such study, a collage, is pictured below.  Martha told me that the selection on view is only “the tip of the iceberg” in the museum’s collection. They reflect Blume’s very deliberate and obsessive process as he worked on The Rock over a period of years.


There is a lot to see in this exhibition and I’ve only touched upon the tip of the iceberg myself, so come and see for yourself before it closes April 4th. And don’t forget that February is free admission.

Rufino Tamayo. The Fruit Vendor, 1943. Bequest of Elizabeth F. Chapman.
Edward Hopper. Streetwalker, 1906/07. Olivia Shaler Swan Memorial Collection.
John Steuart Curry. John Brown, 1939. Restricted gift of Bryan S. Reid, Jr.
Peter Blume. Study for The Rock, 1943/48. Gift of Peter Blume.