Archive for the 'American Art' Category

Obscured Homes: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Overlooked Narratives in US Art History

America Will Be!: Surveying the Contemporary Landscape, the DMA’s new free exhibition on view April 6 through October 6, 2019, ends with “The Home.” One of six thematic galleries, “The Home” is the last in the exhibition and features one object in particular whose form is at once familiar and comforting—a worn and humble quilt, Amelia Bennett’s Bars and Strips. The quilt is included in the exhibition after a recent acquisition of seven artworks from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which collects and advocates for the work of self-taught African American artists from the Deep South. Amelia Bennett is one of over 100 women collectively referred to as the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers. These women are part of a rich tradition of quilt making in their shared community in Alabama, dating as far back as the mid-19th century. The story of how these quilts, made for intimate spaces of the home, have ended up on the walls of major museums asks viewers to consider the roles race and class play in the formation of art history.

Amelia Bennett
© Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation advocates for works such as Bennett’s quilt to be considered within our modernist paintings in the art historical canon. Incorporating what is considered craft or folk art into the larger framework of high art begins to historically correct for the absence of women, and more specifically, women of color, in the mainstream narrative of US art production; however, the foundation’s current efforts in advocating for these artists demand a renewed consideration of the work on its own terms, necessitating a critical look at these objects’ pasts. Historical attempts to introduce the quilts of Gee’s Bend to the larger art world inadvertently reinforced harmful understandings about why we should value the art production of black women living in remote parts of the country.

In attempts to make them legible to art audiences, the quilts were introduced as reflecting the aesthetics of modernist art movements such as Abstract Expressionism. Valuing these quilts only as approximations of abstract painting diminishes the inherent creativity and worth of the quilts themselves when, in fact, the Gee’s Bend quilts are not derivative but a historical part of Abstract Expressionism’s development. Founders of Abstract Expressionism originally drew from sources such as folk and classical art to legitimize their art movement as one that spoke to a universal humanity. Barnett Newman, Robert Murray, and Roy Lichtenstein looked to quilts to develop a sense of home-grown American art aesthetics and identity unique to the nation. Discussing the quilts as attempts at modernist painting erases this history and does not validate their status as art objects produced by women of color without connecting them to a formal, masculine, and traditionally accepted art movement.

The second popular reading of the quilts was developed by their founder William Arnett. He believed that the quilts and other assemblage works by Souls Grown Deep artists actually embodied a complex and private system of communication among black community members in the South. Other related readings connected the colors and patterns in Gee’s Bend quilts to those used in textiles in West Africa. Maude Southwell Wahlman, an African and African American art historian, believed these techniques were passed down from generation to generation, so that contemporary quilters were embedding codes into their works that even they no longer knew the significance of; however, textile historian Amelia Peck quickly sets straight that these readings, “about most African Americans being unaware of the symbols and signs in their quilts makes the concept both paternalistic and suspect.” The Souls Grown Deep Foundation grapples with these histories of interpretation, including its own past, in order to make sense of the artists’ work for our contemporary moment. 

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are compelling on their own, unrelated to what these interpretations impose on them. Bennett’s Bars and Strips was made to captivate the viewer with its block patchwork composition and gradations of blues and grays. It wears its history, its over 90 years of age. The small tears, discolorations, patches, wrinkles, and uneven wear speak to the former lives of the fabric pieces, when they covered legs, soaked up sweat, and faded in the sun. The quilt moves beyond holding our aesthetic attention. Bennett’s work visually embodies the hard labor of her family and community members, and the poverty in their community that necessitated recycling every small bit of cloth. Its colors and patterns speak not to Mark Rothko’s color fields or to lost secret codes, but to the rich history of a multi-generational art practice and the ability to glean creativity and beauty out of hardship. While America Will Be! ends with “The Home,” contemporary understandings of US art history should begin in the domestic and creative sites of women and people of color so long overlooked.

Amelia Bennett, Bars and Strips, 1929, cotton, denim, and muslin, Dallas Museum of Art, Discretionary Decorative Arts Fund and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Foundation, 2019.3.6

Read more about the Gee’s Bend Quilts as contemporary art objects:
Peck, Amelia. “Quilt/Art: Deconstructing the Gee’s Bend Quilt Phenomenon.” In My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South, edited by Kamilah Foreman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018: 53-91.

Kimberly Yu is the McDermott Intern for Contemporary Art at the DMA.

Piecing Together “Ida O’Keeffe”

Too obscure to be acquired by major museums during the artist’s lifetime, Ida O’Keeffe’s artworks ended up in some interesting places. Sue Canterbury—curator of Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow and The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art—spent more than four years tracking down information about Ida, Georgia O’Keeffe’s younger sister. She gleaned information from archives across the country and from passing mentions in Georgia’s biographies, but along the way big and small contributions from strangers provided key pieces to the puzzle.

Michael Stipe, the musician best known as the lead singer of R.E.M., approached a DMA curator at an event in New York City and said he heard the Museum was organizing an exhibition on Ida O’Keeffe. Well, he had a photograph of Ida by Alfred Stieglitz.

Alfred Stieglitz, Ida O’Keeffe, 1924, gelatin silver print, Collection of Michael Stipe

Whirl of Life (1936) is owned by a woman who lives in New Mexico, but her sister lives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. She heard about the DMA’s plans, called her sister, and, according to Canterbury, said something along the lines of “Hey, you know that painting you have in your closet?”

The owners of Black Lilies (1945) and Portrait of a Banana Tree (c. 1942) are sisters from Whittier, California, where Ida spent the last 19 years of her life. One of the sisters took painting lessons from Ida, and the artist was a close friend of the family.

Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow, installation view, Dallas Museum of Art, on view November 18, 2018–February 24, 2019

Aside from finding paintings, it was also critical to gather biographical information in order to create a timeline of the artist’s life and get a sense of her personality. There wasn’t any anecdotal evidence of what Ida was like as a teenager. Then, one day, a man messaged Sue to share that his great aunts were Ida’s classmates at Chatham Hall in Virginia, where she went to high school, and he had letters that described what a popular girl she was—a member of the basketball team, tennis team, and glee club. Canterbury had no idea where Ida was during the 1937–38 academic year, until a woman called to say her mother rented out a bedroom in New York City that year to Ida O’Keeffe.

And then there are the lighthouses . . . 

In 2013 Canterbury was visiting the home of a collector in Dallas when she noticed an abstract painting of a lighthouse. She considered the work very strong but couldn’t identify the artist. She asked the collector, who replied, “Ida O’Keeffe,” and Canterbury was stunned. Thus began the five-year quest to collect information on an ignored O’Keeffe sister with the hope of mounting the museum exhibition that Ida never got in her lifetime.

Based on documents, Canterbury knew that Ida had completed seven paintings of the Highland Lighthouse in Massachusetts. By 2016 she had located five. The two missing lighthouses she only knew from descriptions: one, a realistic depiction, was the first one Ida executed, and the other was an abstracted depiction in red. Out of the blue, she got a call from celebrity jewelry designer Neil Lane. He had the red lighthouse painting, which he had purchased at a flea market in Los Angeles around 25 years ago.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme VI, c. 1931–32, oil on canvas, Collection of Neil Lane

Even though the exhibition has opened, new information is still trickling in. Canterbury expected that would happen and she encourages people to reach out, especially if they own an excellent painting of a certain Cape Cod lighthouse.

See Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow at the DMA through February 24, 2019.

Lillian Michel is the Communications and Marketing Coordinator at the DMA.

Ruth Pershing Uhler: A Texas Woman Artist to Know

Why do some women artists become famous while others become footnotes in art history textbooks? That is the topic of discussion in The O’Keeffe Sisters and Women of American Modernism, a series of short talks at the DMA on February 2. Few art history scholars knew Georgia O’Keeffe had a younger sister named Ida who was also an artist, and whose work is now exhibited in Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow. Ahead of the talks, we thought we would take a look at another woman modernist in the DMA collection you probably haven’t heard of: Ruth Pershing Uhler.

Ruth Pershing Uhler was born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1895. Uhler and her family moved to Houston in 1909, but she returned to Pennsylvania to study art. Receiving the proper training was the first hurdle women had to clear to become artists. Women were often encouraged to study “lesser” mediums like watercolor instead of oil, and art was seen as part of a woman’s aesthetic training to create a beautiful home rather than as a career. Uhler didn’t settle for these expectations. She studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (and did learn to work in oil), and after graduating she obtained a fellowship that provided her with her own studio and the ability to paint and exhibit art in Philadelphia. She worked in Philadelphia for 11 years before returning to Houston in 1925 and exhibiting across Texas in the 1920s and 30s.

Ruth Pershing Uhler, Earth Rhythms, c. 1935, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas Artists Fund, 2018.10, © Estate of Ruth Pershing Uhler

In 1935 Uhler went to Santa Fe with friend and fellow Texas artist Grace Spaulding John. The landscape of New Mexico inspired a series of nine paintings that Uhler completed after returning to Houston the next year. Earth Rhythms (c. 1935), recently acquired by the DMA, belongs to this series. While it is possible Uhler saw and responded to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Uhler’s paintings—with undulating forms that glow with an almost spiritual quality—are also reminiscent of Transcendentalists like Raymond Johnson and Agnes Pelton, who were working in New Mexico during the same period. Uhler’s series was exhibited in 1936 at the Twelfth Annual Exhibition of Houston Artists.

Uhler teaching in the MFAH galleries c. 1950. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.

At the time, it was impossible for a woman to support herself as a full-time painter without a gallery to represent her and sell her art, so most women artists took second jobs. Uhler became a teacher at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in 1937, and in 1941 she became the MFAH’s first curator of education, a position she held until just before her death in 1967. In the same way that Ida O’Keeffe held nursing and teaching jobs on and off her entire life, being an art educator provided Uhler with financial stability, independence, and creative fulfillment. She was hugely influential in the growth of the MFAH’s education programs, but the demands of her job led her to abandon painting.

Curiously, one day in 1940 Uhler intentionally destroyed many of her paintings in a fire. She built the bonfire in the backyard of Grace Spaulding John’s house, which she had been house-sitting. John’s daughter saw her and asked what she was doing. Uhler officially ended her career as a painter that day, remarking, “Well, I only want my best work to survive.” Consequently, her works are few and difficult to find today.

As art historians reconsider the influence of women artists in modernist movements, and as Texas artists are given more serious attention, artists like Uhler will become more popular. It takes time and a conscious effort on the part of curators to shine a light on under-recognized women artists, but we get a fuller and more realistic view of art history when women’s work is recovered from the margins.

Lillian Michel is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the DMA.

Artworks Aplenty

This week the DMA’s beloved Late Night program turns sixteen! In celebration of each year the program has been around, let’s take a look at artworks that were added to the permanent collection during those years—they are also currently on display, so be sure to keep a lookout for them when you’re here for Late Night!

2004

Olowe of Ise, Kneeling female figure with bowl (olumeye), Nigeria, c. 1910-c. 1938, wood, pigment, and paint, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2004.16.McD

2005

Sugar bowl, Lebolt & Co., Chicago, Illinois, c. 1915, silver, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Marguerite and Robert K. Hoffman in honor of Nancy Hamon, 2005.51.5.a-b

2006

Buddha Sakyamuni, Thailand, Khmer, c. 13th century, gilded bronze, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation, the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, and Bromberg Family Wendover Fund, 2006.21

2007

Mark Handforth, Dallas Snake, 2007, steel, aluminum, and glass lamp head, Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund and Lay Family Acquisition Fund, 2007.39

2008

Window with Sea Anemone (“Summer”), Louis Comfort Tiffany (designer), Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company (manufacturer), New York, New York, c. 1885-95, glass, lead, iron, and wooden frame (original), Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 2008.21.1.McD

2009

Box, John Nicholas Otar (designer), c. 1933, copper and brass, Dallas Museum of Art, Discretionary Decorative Arts Fund, 2009.7.a-b

2010

Nandi, India, c. 13th century, granite, Dallas Museum of Art, the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund and gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation, 2010.6

2011

François-Auguste Biard, Seasickness on an English Corvette, 1857, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of J. E. R. Chilton, 2011.27

2012

Marriage necklace, India, Tamil Nadu, late 19th century, gold, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley honoring Dr. Anne Bromberg via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation and the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, 2012.46

2013

Guillaume Lethière, Erminia and the Shepherds, 1795, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Mrs. John B. O’Hara Fund, 2013.1.FA

2014

Antoine-Augustin Préault, Silence, c. 1842, patinated plaster, Dallas Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. George A. Shutt Fund and General Acquisitions Fund, 2014.10

2015

Bust of Herakles, Roman, Lambert Sigisbert Adam (restorer), 1st century-2nd century CE, marble, Dallas Museum of Art, the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation, and Bromberg Family Wendover Fund, 2015.31

2016

Tomb plaque marker on a tortoise base, China, c. 219-c. 316 CE, limestone, Dallas Museum of Art, the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, 2016.33.a-b

2017

Jonas Wood, Untitled (Big Yellow One), 2010, oil on linen, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Vernon and Amy Faulconer, 2017.45.2, © Jonas Wood

2018

Pair of six-panel folding screens depicting “The Tale of Genji,” Japan, Kano School, 16th-17th century, ink and color on paper, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation, Bromberg Family Wendover Fund, and the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, 2018.21.1-2

Valerie Chang is the McDermott Intern for Adult Programming at the DMA.

Time Travel at the DMA

This week we had a special visitor who traversed through time and space in advance of our November 8 Second Thursdays with a Twist all about Doctor Who. For his tour through the Museum, he said he would like to see some people and places that he’s traveled through time to visit. We were happy to oblige, mostly because we didn’t want him to use his sonic screwdriver on us. As he was walking through the Museum, he also found a few artworks featuring people and places he had not encountered and he wanted to learn more about those too.

The Doctor hadn’t yet met George Washington, so he was eager to see his portrait:

No trip to the DMA is complete without a stop at Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs:

A future iteration of the Doctor met Vincent van Gogh, so naturally we had to show him Sheaves of Wheat:

And here are a few of the other stops he made in our galleries:

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When you visit the DMA on November 8 for our next Second Thursdays with a Twist, you, too, can go back in time to see Winston Churchill, the Aztecs, and many other important historical characters through our scavenger hunt and warp drive tours that’ll have you exploring all that timey wimey stuff!

Katie Cooke is the Manager of Adult Programs at the DMA.

Basis of Bourbon

As the weather becomes cooler (well, sort of), we’re looking forward to warming up inside the Museum with our third installment of Artful Pairings this Thursday—an exclusive night of drink tastings and Museum tours for adults. This event will feature a tour of our new exhibition Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, and what better drink to go with quintessentially American art than bourbon? We’ll hear from the folks at Crooked Fox Bourbon about their product, and mix our own cocktails with bourbon as the star, paired with small bites from our cafe.

To get you in the mood for some barrel-aged goodness, here are some fun facts about bourbon and a few works from our collection that pair nicely with them.

Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, c. 1850, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Karl and Esther Hoblitzelle Collection, gift of the Hoblitzelle Foundation, 1987.41

Did you know that George Washington played a role in how bourbon came to be? In 1789 frontier farmers violently rebelled against their new American government for trying to tax their whiskey, which they used for currency and trade (not just for drinking). As George Washington led an army out west to end this rebellion, some of the disgruntled distillers fled further west to Kentucky, where they thought they would be able to operate under less restrictive conditions. These settlers ended up distilling corn-based alcohol, which gave us the modern day drink we know and love.

To pair with this fact, we have the portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale. Peale widely advertised this portrait with pamphlets including quotes from family members and friends of the president to show this was the most accurate portrayal. His advertising campaign worked, because nearly 80 versions of this portrait exist, including one hanging above the dais in the US Senate Chamber.

Richard Long, Stones of Scotland, 1979, gelatin silver print, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Nancy M. O’Boyle, 1997.154

Although many people could argue the differences between American bourbon and Irish whiskey, they are much closer in production process than you might realize. Bourbon barrels can only be used once for storing the liquor before bottling. Once those barrels have had one batch in them, some become furniture or firewood. Others are repurposed for aging either soy sauce or—most often—Scotch whiskeys made across the pond. Much like the rules and regulations keeping bourbon from being made outside the US, Scotch whiskey can only be made in Scotland. The landscape and natural materials of Scotland inspired the land artist Richard Long to create his space-specific artworks.

Cup: upside-down head, Peru, Sicán (Lambayeque), 900-1100 CE, gold, Dallas Museum of Art, The Nora and John Wise Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jake L. Hamon, the Eugene McDermott Family, Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated, and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Murchison, 1976.W.543

When Irish immigrants settled in Kentucky, they discovered they could make corn into a sweet-tasting liquor. Even though the Irish Americans believed they had come across a new form of alcohol, many cultures in Central and South America had been making corn-based alcohol for centuries. The golden cup above is from the Sicán peoples, who lived around the Andes in Peru until around the 12th century. The vessel would have been used to drink chicha, a corn-based beer that is still made today in many areas of South America during special ceremonies.

We hope this whets your appetite to learn more about this American-made spirit. We still have a few spots open for Artful Pairings, so get your tickets here for the program on Thursday, October 4, at 7:00 p.m.

Katie Cooke is Manager of Adult Programs at the DMA.

Writing the Wrong

While museums increasingly take on roles in entertainment and education, they remain, like libraries, stewards of knowledge. However, sometimes this knowledge—what we think of as researched, established fact—is misguided. Admitting you’ve been wrong can be humiliating, yet slip-ups within the museum field encourage humility. Mistakes remind us that correcting, preserving, and adding to the record is, at the end of the day, what museums are called to do.

The blunder in question surrounds the identity of the objects seen in Gerald Murphy’s 1924 painting Razor.

Gerald Murphy Razor

Gerald Murphy, Razor, 1924, oil on canvas, The Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the artist, © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly, 1963.74.FA

The journey began when Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art, received an email from a concerned fountain pen enthusiast who notified her that the Museum was misinformed about Murphy’s painting. Sue asked me to create a timeline of recorded references to find out when the misinformation began. Then I was asked to search for what may have misled our predecessors and to untangle this 15-plus-year hiccup in the DMA’s records.

For years, the Museum said the razor and pen featured in the painting were modeled after products designed or sold by the Murphy family through their successful storefront, Mark Cross & Co. While it is true that Murphy designed a prototype razor in the mid-1910s that had a short burst of fame from 1912 to 1913, and that his family’s company most likely sold top-of-the-line writing utensils in their luxury goods stores, the razor and pen are NOT Murphy-designed objects. After thorough research, I concluded that years of accidental conflation caused the mix up.

Mark Cross Logo

The Mark Cross logo after its inception in 1845. Gerald Murphy’s father, Patrick Murphy, bought the company in the 1880s, which led to the family’s increasing wealth. © Mark Cross Leathergoods LLC

Murphy confirms the object’s correct identity in his letters with former DMCA director Douglas MacAgy: “The first Gillette razor and the first Parker pen (of red rubber) were real objects (not gadgets) ‘no bigger than a man’s hand.’”

Gerald Murphy letter

A letter from Gerald Murphy to Douglas MacAgy referencing Razor and Watch, another painting by Murphy, 1960, DMA Archives

The object for which Razor takes its name is a Gillette “New Standard” safety razor. This razor featured new technology that increased consumers’ ease of use and overall safety. Fewer shaving cuts? Yes, please! It was the most successful razor during the time of the painting’s creation and reached both American and European markets. By comparing the Mark Cross and Gillette razors below, and looking again at the painting, you can see how the Gillette attribution makes more sense with what Murphy illustrates.

The Parker Pen Company took the American (and later European) markets by storm with its iconic “Big Red” Duofold fountain pen in the early 1920s. Instead of wanting a new Xbox or iPhone as a gift, consumers hoped for a Parker pen.

lucky strike

A 1920s Parker “Lucky Strike” Duofold fountain pen, Courtesy of edgepens on Ebay.com

Why? The pen featured cutting-edge technology, including a leak-proof inkwell system and a durable, strikingly modern red rubber shaft. Murphy’s detailing even alludes to it being not the first version of the pen but the glitzier 1923 version, which included the fashionable “gold girdle,” seen in the advertisement below.

parker ad

1923 Parker advertisement, Courtesy of the-ad-store on Ebay.com

Now to the probable sources of the mix-up: a combination of trying to make the painting more personal to Murphy, plus an unfortunate conflation of similarly named companies. Symbols are always intriguing and tempting for art historians. If Murphy had designed the razor and/or pen, it could be seen as a self-portrait; yet, Razor still can be, despite the objects not being of his design (see Deborah Rothschild’s book Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy).

Additionally, an accidental conflation occurred between the Mark Cross name and the A.T. Cross Company, a popular producer of pens. A.T. Cross bought the Mark Cross company in 1983 (right before the first publication of the misinformation), as referenced on A.T. Cross’s website. Prior to the buyout, Mark Cross was known primarily for its leather goods, not its side hustle of writing accessories. Every source that labels Mark Cross as a pen company and the pen as sold/designed by Mark Cross occurs after this buyout date.

Murphy’s Razor and his dazzling 1925 painting Watch are currently not on view, but be sure to check them out in the DMA’s upcoming exhibition Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, on view from September 16 through January 6!

Ashton Smyth is the Summer Curatorial Intern for American Art at the DMA.


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