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Symposium: America after the Fall—Painting in the 1930s

September 10, 2016
Fullerton Hall
Free with museum admission

Join us for a full day exploring topics related to the exhibition America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s.


Symposium Topics and Presenters

Multiple Moderns: American Art and Artists During the Great Depression

Erika Doss, University of Notre Dame

This talk considers the impressive stylistic, geographic, and narrative diversity of American painting in the 1930s, from Regionalist scenes of midwestern farms and Surrealist visions of urban apocalypse to Social Realist indictments of national failures, abstract experiments in composition and color, and symbolic portraits of American laborers and landscapes. If deeply dissimilar and often at odds, American painters of the 1930s shared interests in shaping the course of modern art and cultivating new understandings of cultural identity. Their multiple directions, differences, and disputes speak to the contested terms of cultural pluralism during a decade of national and global crisis.

Past as Present, Present as Past: Charles Sheeler’s New Deal

Charles Brock, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

During the 1930s, Charles Sheeler explored new ways in which he might apply his ultramodern Precisionist aesthetic to cultural artifacts from America’s past. The artist became closely associated with the Index of American Design, a New Deal program charged with creating a comprehensive pictorial archive of American crafts and decorative arts before 1900. Ostensibly an objective, historical record of America’s shared, commonplace heritage, the project was directed by a group of modernists, including Sheeler, who rejected simple nostalgia and antiquarianism, and were just as interested in how the present directed the past as they were in how the past influenced the present. This lecture will discuss how Sheeler, in pursuing his cool, dispassionate, anonymous modernist strategies, succeeded in transposing and conflating the historical and the contemporary, the old and the new. 

Color Matters: Urban Painting and the Dilemma of Race

Carmenita Higginbotham, University of Virginia

This lecture considers African American representation and the visual phenomenon of the Bowery in the 1930s. As artist Reginald Marsh and his contemporaries used color as a racial marker and an aesthetic attribute, it became a powerful tool for reimaging public space and issues such as racial difference, masculinity, and poverty. Through the inclusion of African American figures and other indicators of identity, these images foreground how the Bowery was pictured as an urban spectacle in which race complicated pictorial definitions of the city and of American art.

The American Uncanny

Sarah Burns, Indiana University

Weaving paintings together with a wide swath of 1930s visual culture—from horror movies and freak shows to pulp fiction and tabloid violence—this lecture will illuminate the underside of the American scene by focusing on the pervasive malaise, both social and subjective, that prompted artists to plunge into the deepest shadows of Depression-era America, where they channeled those uneasy feelings into fantastic visions of social decay, surrealistic nightmares, and all-out Gothic horror.

Paul Cadmus. The Fleet's In!, 1934. Courtesy of the U. S. Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command.