National Tour of “Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” Features Midcentury Paintings and Sculpture

August 11, 2008
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum has organized the nationally traveling exhibition “Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” which opens Nov. 29 at The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami. The exhibition features 43 key paintings and sculptures by 31 of the most celebrated artists who came to maturity in the 1950s. “Modern Masters” examines the complex and varied nature of American abstract art in the mid-20th century through three broadly conceived themes that span two decades of creative genius—“Significant Gestures,” “Optics and Order” and “New Images of Man.” The exhibition will travel to at least five venues through 2011; it is not scheduled to be on view at the museum’s main building in Washington, D.C.

“The exhibition introduces the richness and complexity of American art in the years following World War II. We are thrilled that the deep holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum allow us to share important works by leading abstract painters and sculptors with audiences throughout the country.” said Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who organized the exhibition.

The decades following World War II were stimulating times for American art. While some vanguard artists began to paint or sculpt in the 1930s as beneficiaries of WPA-era government support, other immigrant artists fled to the United States as Nazi power grew in Germany. A few artists were highly educated; others left school at an early age to pursue their art. Working in New York, California, the South and abroad, these artists blended knowledge gleaned from the old masters and modernists Picasso and Matisse with philosophy and ancient mythology to create abstract compositions that addressed current social concerns and personal history. Some mixed hardware-store paint with expensive artist colors and bits of paper torn from magazines, linking their work with contemporary life.

Aided in their efforts by a group of young dealers, prominent critics and influential editors, abstract artists gained credibility. Abstraction was no longer dismissed as irrelevant or incomprehensible, but instead became a widely discussed national style. Weekly magazines such as Life, Time and Newsweek brought images of contemporary abstraction to households throughout the country while New York museums toured exhibitions to the capitals of Europe. Galleries discovered new markets in the country’s growing middle-class, and newspapers celebrated American culture as an equal partner with technology in catapulting the United States to preeminence on the world stage. By the late 1950s, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and other painters and sculptors who embraced abstraction early in the decade enjoyed success, celebrity and international acclaim.

“Significant Gestures” explores the autographic mark, executed in sweeping strokes of brilliant color that became the expressive vehicle for Francis, Hofmann and Kline as well as Michael Goldberg and Joan Mitchell. These artists and others, affected by World War II, became known as abstract expressionists. For each artist, the natural world, recent discoveries in physics and the built environment provided motifs for powerful canvases of color and light.

“Optics and Order” examines the artists who investigated ideas such as the exploration of mathematical proportion and carefully balanced color. This section, which highlights Josef Albers, also features Ad Reinhardt, who developed visual vocabularies that used rectilinear shapes to meld intellectual idea with emotional content, and artworks by like-minded artists Ilya Bolotowsky, Louise Nevelson and Esteban Vicente. Two sculptures by Anne Truitt, whose majestic columns transform childhood memories of Maryland’s Eastern Shore into totemic structures, are included in this section as well.

“New Images of Man” includes works by Romare Bearden, Jim Dine, David Driskell, Grace Hartigan, Nathan Oliveira, Larry Rivers and several others, each of whom searched their surroundings and personal lives for vignettes emblematic of larger, universal concerns. Issues such as tragedy, interpersonal communication and racial relations guided the creation of these artists’ pieces.

The exhibition debuts at The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami (Nov. 29 – March 1, 2009); it will then be on view at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa. (June 14 – Sept. 6, 2009), the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga. (Nov. 13, 2010 – Feb. 5, 2011), the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, Tenn. (March 19, 2011 – June 19, 2011) and the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Oct. 7, 2011 – Jan. 1, 2012).

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is grateful to our generous contributors for their support of “Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.” The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund provided support for the publication. The C. F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program “Treasures to Go.” Members of the Smithsonian Council for American Art contribute to the museum’s national programs.

“Modern Masters: American Abstraction at Midcentury,” the fully illustrated catalog co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Limited (London), is forthcoming. Written by Mecklenburg with contributions by Tiffany Farrell, the book features an essay and biographical information on the 31 artists whose work is included in the exhibition. It will be available this fall for $65 ($45 softcover) at the museum’s store, tour venues and online at

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with approximately 41,500 artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. Its National Historic Landmark building, a dazzling showcase for American art and portraiture, is located at Eighth and F streets N.W. Its traveling exhibition program has circulated hundreds of exhibitions since it was established in 1951. From 2000 to 2005, the museum organized 14 exhibitions of more than 1,000 major artworks from its permanent collection that traveled to 105 venues across the United States. More than 2.5 million visitors saw these exhibitions. Web site:

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Note to editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only may be downloaded from Call (202) 633-8530 for the password. Additional information about the exhibition is available from the museum’s online press room at