It is hidden in a back corner of the Princeton University Art Museum, past the Picasso and Warhol, almost unimaginable in a university art museum. It comes in seventy-seven parts and it comes with security guards. It spans three centuries. It includes the likes of Ashile Gorky, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper. Wholly American, it will one day travel across an ocean to Givenchy and on the return, to Georgia. But until January 9, 2005, it resides inside our Orange Bubble. It is “West to Wesselman: American Drawings and Watercolors” in the Princeton University Art Museum, an exhibition organized by two Princeton natives, Professor of American Art John Wilmerding and museum curator of prints and drawings Laura M. Giles.
The exhibit spans a myriad of art movements, from the Gilded age to the realists to the Abstract Expressionists. West to Wesselman begins with portraiture and landscapes, moves into an era of seemingly ‘anything goes’, addresses some surrealism and cubism, and then concludes with modern, more abstract and conceptual pieces. Throughout the exhibit, it seems impossible to not find something that is aesthetically appealing. Having such an array of styles to choose from even makes the exhibit better even when one is more discriminating. As Wilmerding states, “Selected from over 2, 000 American watercolors an drawings, the works presented in West to Wesselmann provide a clear sense of the richness, depth, range, and quality of a collection that is one of the best in the country.” These drawings and watercolors are it.
At the start of the exhibit, the urge to imitate the European influence seems all too apparent. The portraits, though seemingly more rounded than the precision of the Europeans at the time, endeavor to capture a stature and venerability that was not yet existent in such a young nation. Though the detail is exacting, some landscape drawings, however beautiful, attempt an exoticness that is simply not ‘American’. At the same time, the landscapes capture the enormity that exists in an undiscovered land populated by a nostalgically optimistic people. Yet however much one can appreciate these early drawings, they are relatively dull and unimaginative.
In the second gallery, the interest is piqued with drawings that seem much more modern and certainly more self-assured. A good introduction is the incredible self-portrait by William Page, a drawing that is almost impossible to tell is not a photograph in its precise depiction of the human form. Two paintings, one by Lillian Westcott Hale called Floretta and one by George Bellows entitled The Murder of Edith Cavell are gorgeously reminiscent of silent film. Also included in the mid-section of the collection are a number of extremely colorful paintings of beach and city scenes reminiscent, if not more animated, of Picasso’s women at the beach. Looking at this period, it is funny to note how Dadaism completely missed the Americans. The Dream overshadowed any sense of anarchy.
Georgia O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe. This is an obligatory interlude devoted to the signature painting of the collection. It’s gorgeous, even if you aren’t into flowers.
For me, the true standouts of the collection are dramatically different but, without being pretentious, equally powerful and equally haunting. The first piece is by Everett Shinn and is entitled Studies for Mural in Council Chamber, Trenton City Hall. This is clearly a ‘study’, as it is comprised of a dark background with body parts of a man strewn all across the page; it appears as if he has been dismembered, torn into limbs and torso and head by the artist, and the man’s face accordingly seems to shriek at this deformity. The second piece is an Untitled by the criminally underrated Lee Bontecou, a woman whose work was always overshadowed by the prima donna personalities of the Pollocks of her generation. This work is not notable because of its dark form, but because of what she didn’t paint. Light is beams through the slivers of parchment as if there were some brilliant secret hidden underneath, waiting to seep out. Bontecou’s is in fact the last of the exhibit. It is so with good reason.
Superficially, the most striking aspect of this exhibit is the variety, depth and quality of the art. But what is most striking is its relevance. The introduction to the exhibit asserts its devotion to the cult of the individual, inextricably linking American art to the American identity of no-holds-barred capitalism and the solipsistic John Wayne “hero.”
“West to Wesselman” further serves as a true survey of American history. In the beginnings there were the people, obsessed with their own audacity at having overthrown a world power, having successfully established their city upon a hill. And then there was the vast unexplored territory, full of promise for those who chose to believe it augured well for them. And then the culture established itself, only to culminate in the abstraction, disillusionment and deconstruction of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s when, as Joseph Heller put it, “there was a general feeling that the platitudes of Americanism were horseshit.” It’s all here. It is here and it evolves, from color to black and white, from natural to concocted, from tangible to intangible.
American art’s evolution, our evolution, says something distressingly relevant about the direction of the current state of affairs.