The High Museum of Art is ahead of the curve in making us rethink the relationships among history, society and art. All three of the new exhibitions presented under the aegis of Stephanie Meyer Heydt, the museum’s curator of American art, include genres that transgress the traditional boundaries of fine art and make us look at old genres in a new way. They lay, so to speak, a different interpretive grid over already existing information.
Laying a different conceptual grid atop a set of phenomena changes our knowledge of the phenomena (or maybe only our notion of them — but that’s a separate argument). This includes our knowledge (or notion) of grids themselves; we now think they work more adequately for the understanding of how things are related when the grids are fluid, and thus adaptable to informational irregularities, than when they are stiffly geometric and force an irregularly shaped world into rigidly conceived categories.
The three exhibitions that the High has recently launched simultaneously are, in this sense, pleasingly fluid in their ideas regarding what art is and what it should be.
“The Sculpture of Grainger McKoy,” for example, is all about what today would hiply be termed a mash-up of ornithology, the craft of fine woodcarving and the formal compositional values of traditional high art. (I can imagine McKoy wittily demurring, as he did when showing the press his hyperrealistic bird carvings, “Sorry, I don’t use words of more than two syllables.” But on that occasion, he presented his intellectual context succinctly and eloquently.)
The other two exhibitions, “Embracing Elegance 1885-1920: American Art From the Huber Family Collection” and “Beaux Arts & Crafts: Masterpieces of American Frame Design 1890-1920,” are largely about ways of reframing our concepts regarding the dynamic relationships of beautiful pictorial representation and the picture frame that encloses it. Even if neither Jacques Derrida nor George Lakoff were able to get us thinking about frames or framing in philosophical or sociological terms, maybe these exhibitions will make us consider the frame in terms of aesthetics and historical consciousness.
Thanks to the large scale of the entry to the exhibition space, we first meet Grainger McKoy’s sculpture in its monumental and allegorical mode. “Recovering Stroke” is a title taken from the position of a bird’s wing rising after its downward power stroke; McKoy has combined his perception of the inherent gracefulness of this shape with appropriate scriptural texts regarding grace being found in weakness rather than in power, and he has produced an immense vertically oriented wing that constitutes a powerful visual metaphor in the cancer treatment center that commissioned it. It works equally well in the biblically informed social context of the sculptor’s South Carolina hometown, which asked for a still larger version cast in metal as a public sculpture. Both versions are also marvels of engineering, reflecting McKoy’s double education in architecture and zoology.
Sculptors, like architects, have always faced the challenge of creating graceful forms that won’t collapse or topple over, and to this McKoy adds the personal challenge of producing, say, a sculptural arrangement of life-size quail in motion that will satisfy the knowledgeable eye of a plantation manager. He combines truth to life with truth to materials in pieces that segue into the raw wood that lies beneath the meticulously applied paint; he also repeatedly engages in the tour de force of creating a three-dimensional representation of a bird reflected in water, minus the water.
These excursions into reflective doubling are, for me, jarring to the point of being less successful. The three-dimensional bird below, echoing the shape of the painted and sculpted bird above, is invariably carved or cast in an unpainted fine-art material (whether wood or metal), making for a tastefully symmetrical sculpture. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the dynamics of actual reflection in water. McKoy is good at rendering the truths of ornithology, and even the botany of ground cover being stirred up by birds, but when it comes to the physics of fluids, he seems utterly at sea.
Nevertheless, the exactitude of his sculptural tableaux might have roused admiration in the ancient Greeks, who painted their statuary so as to resemble reality and considered a painting successful if it made real birds want to peck at the grapes in the picture.
It’s delectably ironic, then, that the greatest revelation of McKoy’s artistically oriented eye is found in the incidental sketches he made as preparations for various sculptures. Never intended for public display, many of these possess a vigorous quality of line that more than holds its own against works created as formalist drawings. His sketches do far more than convey visual information.
The paintings and drawings in “Embracing Elegance 1885-1920” give us a significant glimpse into a historical moment in which American artists were balanced between conveying beautifully shaped visual information and embodying an expressive line or brushstroke in the process. That tension between the well-composed realism of academic technique and the pleasure taken in purely surface qualities of paint or pastel and charcoal is what makes this exhibition such a delight. (To be accurate, it is Russell and Jack Huber’s intelligent sensibilities as collectors that make this exhibition such a delight; looking over these works, there isn’t a dud in the bunch, which is not always the case in museum shows based on a single collection.)
Collecting usually involves an inevitable choice between historical comprehensiveness and thematic coherence. Because the former option so often requires settling for second-rank work for the sake of completeness, the Hubers have gone for thematic coherence, focusing on the historical period’s particular interest in elegant femininity and on what curator and catalog essayist Barbara J. MacAdam calls “middle- and upper-class audiences’ … intense curiosity about the lives of the urban poor,” resulting in the emergence in American art of gritty city subjects alongside the traditional rural pleasures presented in landscape painting.
This exhibition thus has a complex double or triple focus: the Gilded Age’s concern with exquisitely refined women versus the new assertiveness of the so-called “Gibson Girl” and the plaintive winsomeness of children; the seductive placidity offered by the natural landscape; and the pastimes and discontents of low-income city dwellers. Actually, the discontents spill over into the landscape in Robert Henri’s 1918 “Where the Trees Are Dying,” and the comfortable poignancy of the delicate-faced children of artists Joseph Rodefer Decamp and Lilla Cabot Perry is set off against the romanticized poverty of a young Venetian washerwoman in Frank Duveneck’s figure study — though his wife may have stood in for the real thing, as High curator Heydt writes in the catalog.
Two of the star-role works in this collection define the aesthetic oppositions that are most in play here. Cecilia Beaux’s elegant pastel of Maud DuPuy Darwin, the wife of Charles Darwin’s second son, (above) exudes a joy in finely expressed representation that forms an aesthetic counterbalance to Everett Shinn’s tension between exact and loose rendering in “All Night Café,” which shows a down-and-out figure standing in a wintry street and gazing forlornly into a brightly lit restaurant.
It’s almost too much to hope that the Hubers should have paid equal attention to the types of frames surrounding such paintings, but they have. In cases where the original frame had been removed, they purchased historically appropriate replacements, though not necessarily exact replications. That raises the question of why there was an original context to which attention should be paid, a frame meant to match the art instead of the décor.
That in turn brings us to “Beaux Arts & Crafts,” the frames from the collection of Edgar O. Smith that dealers and scholars Tracy Gill and Simeon Lagodich have presented in the exhibition adjacent to “Embracing Elegance.” This forms a useful survey of the motives and motifs behind the creation of specific types of frames in an era in which the frame was a sculptural work in and of itself. Not only the look of the painting’s subject matter but the cultural ideas behind it went into the choice of incidental detail, though the frame’s sometime function as unthought-out decoration is also acknowledged: the catalog describes one Carrig-Rohane frame as having been used to “gussy-up a circa-1913 painting” by marine artist Joseph B. Davol.
Charles Prendergast, who made frames to match his idiosyncratically romantic panel paintings, countered critics’ ecstatic glorification of his “exotic luxuriousness” with the down-to-earth retort, “A good frame will bring out all the fine points of a good picture and it will strengthen a poor one, making it seem better than it is, although nobody who knows about art will be fooled.”
We already knew, to some extent, just how much the topic of picture frames is a fit subject for cultural and intellectual history. The two related exhibitions at the High might serve as entry points for thinking them back into social and historical analysis, combined productively with formalist aesthetics. If you couldn’t care less about such stuff, be assured that all three shows are total knockouts within their self-chosen restricted parameters. That they also break new ground is pure lagniappe.