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True to form: Milton Avery’s Child’s Supper.

Sentiment and Steel
By David Brickman

Masterworks: Selections from the New Britain Museum of American Art
The Hyde Collection, through Oct. 3

If the thought of great American art collections immediately brings to mind the Whitney Museum, you’re on the right track. But it wasn’t the first of its kind. Before the Whitney, there was the New Britain Museum of American Art in little New Britain, Conn. Founded in 1903 as the first institution to focus exclusively on American art, and now undergoing major construction for expansion, the New Britain Museum has organized a traveling exhibition from its vast holdings. The Hyde Collection is the show’s first stop on a national tour.

Spanning the centuries from colonial portraiture to postwar modernism, Masterworks: Selections from the New Britain Museum of American Art features 64 paintings in a cornucopia of styles sure to please art lovers of all stripes. But the show offers more than pleasure, providing the opportunity for a mini-lesson in art history as well.

An exhibition of this much scope can be a real problem for the viewer and the presenter alike. The curatorial staff at the Hyde has tackled the installation with aplomb, grouping works in a natural pattern that flows easily, while at the same time creating some intriguing juxtapositions. A simple introductory paragraph fills us in on the basics, but visitors not familiar with the many movements included would benefit from more extensive labeling.

With a show this diverse, one almost automatically gravitates toward favorites—either by genre, artist or particular painting—and I have quite a few worth pointing out. Equally, there are the clever pairings to expound upon. First, a few special picks:

Falling about midway chronologically in this selection is a painter of tremendous renown with a local connection. Frederic Church, whose personal paradise, Olana, placed along the Hudson River north of Hudson, is represented here by a simply dazzling painting called West Rock, New Haven. Church’s technical ability is astonishing, and the view he presents in West Rock makes the most of the classic 19th-century mix of naturalism and symbolism to create an image that works on many levels to impress, instruct and inspire.

For fans of the Hudson River school, there are also paintings by Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Moran and others of that ilk. Another famous school well represented here is that of the American impressionists. Led by Frederick Childe Hassam, whose 1887 Le Jour du Grand Prix is a prominent feature of the installation, this group lacked the innovative fire of its French counterpart but made some beautiful work with a stateside flavor.

My favorite among those included is The Bird Cage by Frederick Carl Frieseke, an explosion of intense color and surprising intimacy, as we share the space of a young woman holding a cage of bright birds amid even brighter flowers. Underscoring the powerful presence of this piece is its pairing with a cloyingly mannered view of a similar subject, ladies enjoying hollyhocks in a garden, by Jonathan Eastman Johnson. The leap that American artists made from the likes of Johnson (1876) to those such as Frieseke (1910) is a huge one.

But there was much further yet to go. Individualist Rockwell Kent, represented here by the typically grand-scaled 1907 Toilers of the Sea, and members of New York’s Ashcan school, including Gifford Beal (with a 1916 painting), George Bellows (1913), William Glackens (1910), Robert Henri (1912), George Luks (1907) and John Sloan (1917) were all much more fully engaged in the sensibilities of the new century, making harder-hitting, looser works that were as likely to depict barroom pals, fishermen or street vendors as lovely ladies.

In a nod to the separation in styles marked by World War II, and due to space considerations, most of the later work in the show is grouped in a separate gallery, where a different sort of art discussion is likely to take place. Here, completely abstract works, such as Theodore Stamos’ 1949-50 Cathedral and John McLaughlin’s #20-1960 mingle with contemporary works that retain representation but also place great emphasis on color and form, such as Milton Avery’s 1945 Child’s Supper and Fairfield Porter’s 1953 Laurence at the Piano.

The pieces in this section also benefit from thoughtful pairings, including a brooding Robert Motherwell canvas placed next to an understated Romare Bearden collage, and the playful call- and-response between Stuart Davis’ stylized but recognizable Analogical Emblem Landscape (1933) and Ilya Bolotowsky’s completely constructivist Composition (1940).

Back in the other gallery, a trio of paintings by Willard Metcalf, John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir are having their own little conversation. The Twachtman, a raging Niagara in Winter (1893), is calmed by Weir’s ethereally lit Landscape (1894), as Metcalf’s aptly titled November Mosaic (1922) forms a tapestry-like bridge between the two. Nearby, a smoky little beach scene by James Abbott McNeill Whistler sits poised to quietly blow you away.

And there are other surprises: Sören Emil Carlsen’s slyly cool still life The Samovar, from 1920, looks 40 years younger, as does Richard Miller’s 1939 Summer Bather, with its fragmented composition, turquoise light and casually nude figure. And Peter Blume’s 1976 Boulders of Avila is remarkable in its scale, colors, details and narrative references.

Other pieces not to be overlooked are Maxfield Parrish’s glowing Dusk, Norman Rockwell’s socially conscious Weighing In and George Tooker’s creepy Bird Watchers. Notably absent are Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper—but there is a nice 1878 Winslow Homer, titled Butterflies.

Finally, the inspired, quirky juxtaposition of a quite small Ralph Blakelock oil (undated but probably late 19th century), The Hunter, with Andrew Wyeth’s oversized 1948 tempera on panel titled McVey’s Barn, provides an interesting focal point to the overall challenge of putting all this diverse art in context.

Blakelock’s sincere but hopelessly romantic vision of an Indian stalking a deer in the dramatic chiaroscuro of a s ummer landscape behind a huge oak, and Wyeth’s impossibly detailed rendering of a hayloft, where otherworldly squares of light from an unseen window give an almost jarring spirituality to the earthy scene, come together unwillingly but purposefully to represent the two minds that inform and drive these, and all, American artists: One is innocent, and too sentimental; the other is unblinking, even heroic. Still, somehow, they can’t exist apart. This show proves the collision of the two can make for great results.

Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, will give a lecture on the Masterworks show at 2 PM on Sunday (July 18) at the Hyde.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Fundamental Change
ADD Gallery, through August 29

While the idea of selling art to raise money is hardly a novel one in the area, there is something decidedly different—and refreshing—about Fundamental Change, the benefit exhibition that opened Saturday at ADD Gallery in Hudson.

ADD is not a nonprofit organization scrambling to keep its doors open, but a successful commercial gallery with a reputation for exhibiting and selling work by nationally and internationally known artists. Proprietor Jeff Snider could just as well mount a summer show and pocket his 50 percent profit. But instead, he’s hosting a salon style exhibition of work by some 50 artists to raise funds for the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Columbia County Judge candidate Pam Jorgen.

This exhibit is unusually consistent in quality for a fund-raiser, with hand-picked and thoughtfully arranged paintings, photographs and sculpture by artists including Grace Knowlton, Lee Lorenz, Colin Cochrane, Lynn Dreese Breslin, Phyllis Galembo, Yura Adams and Don Nice. Most of the work is not overtly political in content, thus avoiding the potential pitfalls of overstatement and amateurism. Instead, the pieces included reflect the individual styles of the contributing artists, as well as Jeff Snider’s proclivity for well-crafted work with a clean, modern edge.

Fundamental Change has a lot to offer; a partisan voice for 50 artists who don’t make political art, an overview of Snider’s distinctly crisp sensibility, and the chance to augment (or start) your art collection with very reasonably priced work by well-established artists.

—Pam Barrett-Fender


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