Sunday, April 6, 2014

Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 17, 2014

So what exactly is realism?  I had thought when I walked into this show that I would see paintings much like the one to the left: readily identifiable objects and people, pictures that are realistic.  Granted, art is not a photograph (and sometimes photographs are not exact replicas of their subjects), but I had anticipated that I would at least know what the painting or sculpture was meant to be.

Surprise, surprise!  It turns out that not everyone has such a narrow definition of realism as I do.  This show, in fact, has such a broad idea of realism that the term seems meaningless.  "Modern American Art" would have been a better title - then one wouldn't come in with any expectation at all.

Some of the works can only be described as abstract, and even of the many that have subjects that are easily identifiable, some of them are surreal.  In one painting, Gertrude and George by Ricard Merkin, there was a cat smoking a cigarette.  In what world is that realism?  I've lived with many cats in my life, and although they were possessed of bad habits, none of them smoked.  I was actually relieved to encounter a still life with vegetables and a quilt.  Although it was cliched, at least I knew what it was and it wasn't bizarre.

This is not to say that there wasn't some good stuff in this show.  Several mother and child pieces were placed together, inviting comparisons to one another and to Mary Cassatt, that master of the maternal portrait.

A memorable sculpture (is that the right word?) was a pile of cannonballs, each sliced open to reveal a human face inside.  A friend of mine described it as creepy, and I can't really improve on that adjective.  If that seems a bit pejorative, I would offer "haunting" as a substitute.

A lovely Vermont landscape by Edward Hopper is also on display; White River at Sharon is a wonderful piece.  Even though the scene itself is still, the brushstrokes evoke a feeling of movement - very nicely done.

I think my favorite piece in the show was A Night in Bologna by Paul Cadmus.  I've seen this several times before, as it's part of the SAAM permanent collection.  It was also part of the Hide/Seek show a few years ago.  I think there's more to this painting than any discussion I've yet read suggests.  Clearly, I need to investigate this artwork more.

Verdict: An uneven show.  There are good pieces there, but you have to push through a certain amount of odd stuff to find it.

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