Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2003
American Identities: A New Look
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY, on permanent view
Installation view of American Identities: A New Look at the Brooklyn Museum

In recent decades, scholars have expanded the definition of American art in a wide variety of directions. Some have been motivated to rethink the exceptionalism so often behind the early collecting and study of art from the United States. Others have worked to document the creative expressions of women and members of diverse ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds into a new “canon” of American visual culture. Still, others have explored the meanings of popular forms of material and visual culture. Instead of establishing a new canon of American art, this kind of work points out the problems inherent in canon formation. For example, many indigenous, colonial, and diaspora cultural traditions bleed across national borders.

Museums have played an important role in this shift. In addition to supporting special exhibitions, several have reinstalled permanent galleries devoted to American art, a fact noted in a panel devoted to this topic at CAA’s 2003 Annual Conference. This trend is amply demonstrated in the New York area. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently taken its Spanish Colonial collection out of storage and placed it on display in the American wing. The Newark Museum’s renovated American galleries integrate works from a variety of elite and popular media and emphasize themes selected to appeal to its diverse urban audience. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s reinstallation of the American galleries, which opened September 13, 2001, is perhaps the most adventurous example of this trend. Its multifarious attack on older definitions of American art is alternately challenging, surprising, and exasperating.

American Identities: A New Look comprises eight galleries that form the perimeter of a square. The 12,000 square feet in these rooms are filled with two hundred paintings and about half as many objects of decorative and outsider art. Film and video stations in four sites run both early silent films and recent documentaries about American art. Mass culture is also referenced by the popular music playing in several locations. The galleries themselves are designed to attract and stimulate the visitor through bold wall colors and vertical dividers placed at jaunty angles that break up the space in unexpected ways.

This dramatic setting is filled with clusters of objects that highlight different themes in the history of American visual culture. After an orientation room that records two centuries of works related to Brooklyn (including treasures such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Brooklyn Bridge (1948) and early films of Coney Island), the galleries are laid out in a roughly chronological order. Each period, however, is approached in a different way: the colonial section emphasizes portraiture, the Federal period features landscapes, and the Gilded Age is filled with genre and domestic scenes. So far this sounds rather conventional—these are themes pursued by canonical artists of these periods. But within each room are clusters of works that offer insightful juxtapositions. The display of Enoch Wood and Sons transfer-printed ceramics depicting scenes of American tourist destinations in front of Thomas Cole’s View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House (1844) demonstrates the connection between landscape painting and tourism better than any wall label ever could. A few rooms later, adjacent portraits of sisters by Raphaelle Peale and Abbott Thayer give life to the sentimental bonds of the nineteenth-century family, while paintings and sculptures of the early twentieth century expose a link between academic pursuits and the emerging science of ethnography. An intimate section of the fourth room offers a rich array of visual contributions on the question of slavery and the Civil War, ranging from Hiram Powers’s blockbuster sculpture The Greek Slave (1844) and Eastman Johnson’s Ride for Liberty, The Fugitive Slaves (1862–63) to a modest bowl bearing an abolitionist inscription. The room also includes silhouetted caricatures of plantation life by the contemporary artist Kara Walker that explode the Victorian restraint of the other pieces.

The presence of twentieth-century pieces alongside their nineteenth-century forebears is perhaps the most radical aspect of this show. Both museums and the academy tend to treat nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art as distinct entities, frequently using World War II as a divider separating the “American” from the “modern.” American Identities refuses this false distinction. The last gallery is devoted entirely to works of the last century, tracing an engagement with modernity in paintings from the Ashcan school to Ross Bleckner. But even more exciting is the display of recent work alongside the old masterpieces in the preceding galleries. Sometimes this results in a bold dialogue, such as the one between large paintings by the nineteenth-century landscapist Louis-Rémy Mignot and the twentieth-century abstractionist Pat Steir in the third gallery. With a tip of the hat to the 1976 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800–1950, this room argues that American art packed a punch long before the international celebration of Abstract Expressionism. But quiet juxtapositions work just as well. When we realize that the tiny panel nestled between luminist landscapes by Martin Johnson Heade and William Stanley Haseltine was painted in 1990 (by Julie Bozzi), we are transported from an investigation of a historical progression of themes and styles to that of the ongoing artistic engagement with nature.

One of the valuable contributions of this exhibition is its integration of the art of the United States and other parts of the Americas. This includes works by both Native Americans and European Americans in Latin America. This is particularly effective in the first gallery, where Anglo American William Williams’s 1766 painting of Deborah Hall hangs next to a portrait made of Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar at a similar time in Peru. The placement demonstrates the similar strategies of self-presentation among the Creole elite in both colonies, including the deployment of pose, references to the emblematic tradition, and elegant “props” and settings that may or may not have actually existed to convey wealth and status. A Zuñi bowl in this same room offers a subtle reminder of the material life of people whose art (and lives) were transformed through contact with these settler cultures. (A section on outsider art provides another opportunity to integrate the visual culture of marginalized groups, especially rural artists inspired by their religious beliefs.)

These cross-cultural comparisons, however, are only sporadic. Only one piece of art made outside what is now the United States appears after the colonial gallery: a silver plate from colonial Peru, which is framed with a Tiffany platter reproducing the Aztec calendar stone. When Native arts appear again, their isolation in a small section reproduces the nostalgic idea of “vanishing” that artists of the West and their patrons supported instead of developing the idea of Indian people as participants in American history. African Americans are more integrated into the thematic presentation, but their presence is only explored in depth in a virtual format, a video from the Brookyn Museum’s 1990 exhibition Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940, which runs continuously in the third gallery. The fact that this is the only documentary video shown (the other monitors all show early silent films) gives this display an odd note, as if the curators are trying to increase the presence of African Americans in the gallery without actually adding works of art.

These problems might be related to holes in the collection not easily filled; the constraints of space may also be a factor. At the same time, the gaps highlight the fractured nature of this exhibition, whose constantly shifting foci, like the constantly changing wall colors, can put viewers off. If American Identities offers delightful surprises to informed browsers, those seeking a coherent experience may be less than thrilled. Students and acquaintances as well as writers in the two comment books placed in the galleries frequently express a sense of being overwhelmed by an exhibition that tries so hard to engage them. In its attempts to refer to so many timely questions in American art history, in the end American Identities can answer none of them to complete satisfaction. It is difficult to say if this is a strength, weakness, or simple reflection of the impossible task of creating a display that simultaneously challenges and reinforces the idea of something called “American art.”

Elizabeth Hutchinson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Barnard College/Columbia University