Writing about a future art exhibit is a little tough. Similar to a concert or travel, art exhibitions are experiential and therefore much easier to discuss after you’ve seen them firsthand. Anticipating what you will see, feel and think, you cannot pour experience into the writing.
For guidance, I sat with Greg Harris, Assistant Curator of Photography for the High Museum, to discuss Cross
Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950, opening at the High February 12th. Greg—in the wake of Brett Abbott’s exit—is currently sole photography curator for the museum. He’s a busy guy and I’m thankful he could make the time.
The High describes their forthcoming exhibit in this way; “Cross Country will uncover how experiences of rural life fundamentally changed the direction of American art.” “… the exhibition will feature more than 200 artworks, and encompass a wide range of media and makers— from paintings and photographs to murals and sculpture”.
Reading this, I have many questions. What comparative relationship will the photographs have with other art on display? How important was photography to art and artists of this time period? Will assembling such a large cross-section of artworks reveal larger themes and shared ideas?
As Greg and I begin talking, he mentions that Cross Country will show how the countryside inspired American artists to find new subjects in the early 20th century. He says the exhibit is “focusing on artists either living or working outside of cities or urban centers”. And that in some ways Cross Country gives an alternate history of the modernist art movement in America because “generally, American modernism is told through artwork of and about cities, particularly New York.”
Cross Country is organized by region—The South, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, West, & Northeast. Greg tells me that artists responded to unique aspects of the landscape in each region. And clarifies by saying, “We’re trying to emphasize how topography or the particular light or the buildings and people you might encounter in a region, how that sparks different work.”
Greg is quick to highlight the rise of photography in America at this time. “This is the moment when photographers develop a uniquely photographic way of making fine art and also when photography is more widely accepted into the mainstream art dialogue.”
For perspective, Group f/64 — photographers Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston among others — was awarded a group show at the De Young Museum in 1932. In 1937, Weston became the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. American Photographs, a large-scale exhibition of Walker Evans images opened at The Museum of Modern Art in 1938. And from 1935 through 1944 the Farm Security Administration hired photographers such as Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange to document rural life across the nation.
Discussing the vision that photographers were developing at this time Greg says, “The f/64 photographers were all about creating a camera aesthetic — a very sharp, precise way of rendering the world, in the way only a camera can.” “You also have Walker Evans working for the FSA and developing a distinctly photographic, documentary way of making pictures. A seemingly objective way of looking at the world — straight on, rational, organized, letting the subject matter speak for itself.”
Greg continues, “There’s similar interest between photographers and painters and I think that will come through in the exhibition. The works are intermingled to emphasize dialogue between artists regardless of the media they worked with.”
As we talk, I learn that dialogue was sometimes literal. A focal point of Cross Country is the Stieglitz family home at Lake George in New York. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his wife Georgia O’Keefe often hosted artist friends such as painters Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley and photographers Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. During visits they would discuss art and make new work.
And it was at Lake George where Alfred Stieglitz began making his Equivalent series comprising tightly framed, abstract depictions of clouds. Greg describes the series as a “major creative breakthrough” for Stieglitz and explains the images were meant to express an inner state of emotion through photographs. A concept people were comfortable with in painting and that Stieglitz believed could be utilized in photography.
Another example of dialogue between artists is the Gordon Parks photograph of Ella Watson which Parks made in response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Greg details Park’s intention as “taking that seemingly wholesome image of rural American life and undercutting the idea of what American values are by saying ‘we as black people are not included in this ideal’.” This image by Parks illustrated clearly that photography could powerfully communicate artistic ideas alongside painting and other forms of art.
Talking with Greg and studying the works planned for display, there’s clear understanding that the landscape in each region contributed to the inspiration of artists in unique ways, regardless of medium. Photographers and painters in the West gravitated toward grand views of nature. In the South there was interest in vernacular culture and clapboard architecture.
Despite spending time with Greg discussing nuances within Cross Country, I’m left with questions. I’m curious to know how a shifting American society may have effected the modernist art movement. The Great Depression, The Great Migration, two world wars and the popular rise of the automobile must have informed American art and artists alongside the vast and varied landscape.
These questions, I suppose, must wait for the experience.
Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950
Feb. 12 through May 7, 2017
High Museum of Art