Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 40
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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“14TH STREET”: Isabel Bishop’s oil on masonite painting is at once very much of its time (circa 1930) and timeless. This rarely displayed work is one of many memorable pieces on view in the Michener’s “Painting the People: Images of American Life from the Maimon Collection,” which will run through October 18.

The James A. Michener Art Museum
Intelligent Forms and Ageless Art Illuminate a Museum’s Legacy

Stuart Mitchner

Now’s a good time to visit the James A. Michener Art Museum. A terrific exhibit that is easily worth the drive to Doylestown, Pa., “Painting the People: Images of American Life from the Maimon Collection,” will be on view through October 18. As if that weren’t enough, the museum has transformed itself into the curatorial equivalent of a chart-topping anthology (you could call it The Michener’s Greatest Hits) with ”An Evolving Legacy: Twenty Years of Collecting,” which celebrates two decades of excellence by showing off the crown jewels of the collection.

The show begins as soon as you walk in the door. Done in charcoal, graphite, and tempera on gessoed laminated wood panel, Lloyd Raymond Ney’s 1940 Study for New London Facets is said to be the first abstract mural installed in a government building (the New London, Ohio, Post Office). “Abstract” is hardly the word for Ney’s crazed cartoon. With most WPA murals, no matter how accomplished, there are few surprises since the subject or theme is so often dictated by a formal or ceremonial context. This sprawling assemblage of forms and faces is fun; you can get lost looking into it. Instead of evoking the majestic likes of Thomas Hart Benton or John Seurat Curry, this mural suggests Picasso at play, a Guernica you can dance to — or at least spend five minutes wandering around in reading the mail, which is embedded in the work. You’ll find one envelope addressed from the artist in New Hope to “The Commander in Chief, Symbol of Freedom in Spirit and Soul Expression U.S.A.” (registered Special Delivery). There’s also a stamped post card addressed to “The People of New London, Ohio,” from “the Pioneers of the Past.” Known locally as Bill Ney, the artist (1893-1965) lived in New Hope for 40 years, painting and working odd jobs “in order to avoid the pressure of creating salable art.” With this massive virtuoso piece, he avoided the pressure of institutional hackwork, took a solemn assignment, and ran with it.

Amazing Furniture

The Michener’s “evolving legacy” appears in forms as various as the walnut Kornblut Case designed by George Nakashima (1905-1990), who is also the subject of Jack Rosen’s extraordinary photograph (a selenium toned print on paper in which Nakashima appears to be peering out of one of his own creations); the masterfully distorted walnut fireplace by Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008), and the stylish Throne Desk and Armchair designed by Bucks County craftsman Robert Whitley (born 1924), whose commissions include a chess set presented by President Richard Nixon to the Soviet Union, and a recreation of President John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office desk for the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.

Another fanciful and engaging Michener treasure is the mad blue dream of a bedroom by Catherine Jansen (born 1950). In The Blue Room (1970), photosensitized cloth and photographic dyes are used to create a total environment that includes everything from a blue-toned New York Times to a table-model television to the double bed on which the image of a sleeping man and woman is imprinted, their clothes and slippers on the floor.

Gowin’s Nancy

Among the most expressive images on view is Princeton University faculty member Emmet Gowin’s toned gelatin silver print on paper, Nancy, Danville (1969). According to the 68-year-old Gowin, whose retirement will be marked by a special exhibit next month at the Princeton University Art Museum, his niece Nancy assumed the complexly eloquent pose (arms entwined, an egg in either hand) spontaneously: “It was the wisdom of her own body that taught her to make that gesture. She embellished what she was saying … by crossing her arms and making a wonderful presentation of the two eggs.” Perhaps even more striking is the way her head is tilted back, eyes closed, as if she were distancing herself from that presentation; the effect is ambiguous; she could be listening to the singing of angels or simply waiting for a response; or she could be afflicted, as if she were not striking the pose but stricken by it, like the victim of seizure or some other wrenching, involuntary movement.

The Human Experience

The moment captured in Nancy, Danville is complemented by the imagery in “Painting the People,” possibly the single most satisfying exhibit I’ve seen in almost six years of reviewing the Michener. This cross-section of 20th-century American art at its most human and humane is a credit to the Maimons’ eye for what Barbara Maimon called “pictures that are true to the human experience, that give us a glimpse of people’s lives.”

As you move from painting to painting and moment to moment, it’s the depth beyond the “glimpse” that keeps you gazing at beauties like Francis Luis Mora’s (18741940) Evening News (1914), where two women sit among a row of business-suited, newspaper-reading men on a subway and the one woman who isn’t reading looks right at you, something ageless and oddly intimate in her gaze, like Botticelli’s Venus reincarnate in a New York shopgirl. Nor is “glimpse” enough to explain why you spend so much time in front of Raphael Soyer’s (1899-1987) The Young Artist, or Harlem Renaissance painter Palmer Hayden’s (1890-1973) Carousel (circa 1950), which has the style and feel of Faith Ringgold; or the stunning work by African American artists Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and Romare Bearden (1911-1988). Then there’s the rich, elaborate patterning of color and light infusing the human scene in Colin Campbell Cooper’s (1856-1937) Fortune Teller (1921). Not surprisingly, Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) is here, as is Don Freeman (1908-1978), best known today as the author of the childrens’ classic Corduroy Bear. Look at his Waiting for the Express — Union Square (1939) and you know why he was called the Daumier of New York City before he created Corduroy.

Be sure not to miss the work on view downstairs in the Wachovia Gallery, where you will find more Marsh and more Gowin, along with mural studies by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) for Riker’s Island and Edward Laning (1906-1981) for Ellis Island.

Isabel Bishop’s Union Square

Union Square is more than a place in Manhattan; it defines a group of artists who lived and worked on or near 14th Street, among them Marsh and Laning, and, most particularly, Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), whose working life spanned the heart of the century. Her oil on masonite painting 14th Street (circa 1930) is a rarity not to be found in any of the major books about her and her work by Karl Linde (Abrams) and Helen Yglesias (Rizzoli). The thoughtful, vaguely distracted woman walking toward us on the crowded sidewalk appears almost spectral compared to the one eyeing us in Evening News or the brilliantly up front Woman With Umbrella (1930) by Bishop’s teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952). Miller’s woman is also walking toward us, also looking thoughtfully to one side and though she’s much more clearly defined in colors more basic and solid, she’s a flatter creation. Phase out or reconfigure the huddled crowd and Bishop’s haunted and haunting woman could be walking down the Riva degli Schiavoni in 17th-century Venice.

Of all the artists in either exhibit, no one was so devoted to “painting the people” as Isabel Bishop. Henry James might have conceived her — a woman of wealth and position commuting by subway from her Jacobean manor house in Riverdale to her studio overlooking Union Square, sketching on the train and in the station. Her subjects were waitresses and working girls, people striding, standing, conversing, old men sewing buttons on the sleeves of old coats. She was fascinated by the way people walked and communicated and by the depth of urban atmosphere that could make the world around them, even dingy 14th street, seem like some ageless fresco or sundimmed mosaic.

“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” which just opened and will run through November 29, is the inaugural show in the Della Penna-Fernberger | Paton | Smith Galleries, the new exhibition space that is the center-piece of the Museum’s $12 million expansion. Also on view: “An Independent Spirit: The Art and Life of R.A.D. Miller,” through January 3, 2010. The museum is located at 138 S. Pine in Doylestown, Pa. For more information, call (215) 340-9800.

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