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Evolving Identities: Figurative Work from the 19th Century to Now

March 21 - August 1, 2004


Featuring portraits and a range of figurative works by historical, modern and contemporary American and Native American artists, Evolving Identities traces the cultural evolution of the artistic representations of individuals. The great variety of works in this show exemplifies America's diversity, unified by a characteristically American form of humanism-optimistic, liberal, and democratic. The varied works illustrate the ingrained American belief in individualism and its unique nature, irrespective of sex, race, class or popular culture. (right: Chuck Close, Phil Spitbite, 1995, aquatint, edition of 60, 28 x 19 inches, Museum purchase; Collectors Forum Acquisition Fund 2003.2)

As the humanist ideal of individual self-development of mind and body has become ever more inclusive, the complexities of this challenge are evident in the rich variety of work in this exhibition. Evolving Identities is drawn primarily from the Montclair Art Museum's permanent collection, and features many of the Museum's most recent acquisitions. The exhibition is curated by MAM's Chief Curator, Gail Stavitsky, and Twig Johnson, Curator of Native American Art.



Evolving Identities opens with a cross-cultural survey of artists' portraits of themselves and their creative colleagues. Thomas Eakins's portrait of his boyhood friend and art dealer Charles Haseltine (ca. 1901) reflects his tendency to emphasize his sitters' character rather than flatter their appearances. The growing complexities of identity and culture in modern and contemporary America will be represented by Robert Henri's forthright portrait of his friend and fellow progressive Ashcan School artist John Sloan (c.a.1906), and T. Harmon Parkhurst's vibrant portraits of the leading Native American ceramicist Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian. The revitalization of portraiture is evident in Alice Neel's Isabel Bishop (1974), one of a number of compelling artists' portraits in the exhibition, as is Konrad Cramer's striking photograph of the painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Carrie Mae Weems's Framed by Modernism (1997) which features herself and Robert Colescott, and Rafael Ferrer's homage to the sculptor David Smith, Notes (1998-99). Chuck Close's probing self-portrait prints of 2002 suggest the transience of time, and recent acquisitions such as Catherine Opie's photograph of a tattooed young woman, the acupuncturist and professional piercer Jo (1993), provide a contemporary, counter-culture update of the portrait tradition. (right: Peter Jacobs, Darwin, 1997, mixed media collage, 481/2 x 48 inches, Gift of the artist 1999.19)


The Nude

The nude in American art is illustrated in Elie Nadelman's classical marble Lady on a Rock (ca. 1940), Raphael Soyer's After the Bath (1946), Montclair artist Mario Lupo's print Great Caution Needed (2000), and Philip Pearlstein's monumental realist painting Nude Reclining on a Luna Park Lion (1991) among others. Leading contemporary artist Kiki Smith's monumental mixed media self-portrait Untitled (With Scarves), 2002, is a highlight of this section, as are two fine examples of contemporary Native American art by Kay WalkingStick and Fritz Scholder. Abstract approaches to the human figure are also presented in works by pioneering American abstract painter Carl Holty's Seated Figure, 1933, and George McNeil's vibrantly colored, energetic Deliverance Disco (1987), created when the elderly artist was attracted to the vitality of discotheques and disco dancing.


Group Identity and Ritual

A section devoted to figural groups and collective activities or rituals includes works on paper from the 1930s by Ma-Pe-Wi, Harrison Begay, and Abel Sanchez and exemplify the beginnings of a representational Studio movement among Native American artists, who trained with Dorothy Dunn at her Studio School in Santa Fe. Images of Native Americans engaged in dance, religious and hunt-related rituals, horse racing and other group activities are juxtaposed with contrasting representations of parallel American phenomena such as Larry Fink's 1978 photograph of a dancing teenage couple, Juan Sanchez's reflection of his Puerto Rican heritage in the mixed media print Once We Were Warriors (1999), Ida Applebroog's serial, cartoon-like print of self-absorbed, time-conscious corporate executives, Executive Tower, West Plaza (1982), and Alan Crite's pen and ink drawings of The Christmas Story, a retelling of the Nativity in terms of his African American heritage. (left: Janet Taylor-Pickett, Incantations and Invocations, 1990, watercolor, metallic paint, colored crayons, and cut out paper collage elements, 18 x 24 1/8 inches, Gift of Clarence H. Seniors 1992.6

Also on view in Evolving Identities is a rare and exceptional example of Plains Indian graphic art known as the Kiowa, Pah-Bo, or Merritt Barber Ledger. This complete book of drawings dating from around 1880, is on long term loan to the Montclair Art Museum, and was created by Pah-Bo or Buffalo Head, a Kiowa, under the commission from Captain Merritt Barber stationed at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, Oklahoma. The ledger chronicles in detail the daily life of the Kiowas from the mid- to late-1870's when the military was resettling Native Americans onto reservations.

Ethnographic works by various early Native American artists are incorporated into the exhibition. Baskets from California and the Southwest, Katsinas, and a pictorial Navajo textile depicting a ceremonial dance show the tribal societies emphasis was on the group or tribe, rather than on the individual. Figures are shown in groups, unless the figure is a supernatural being or spirit, even in the ledger book and early Studio-style works on paper, most often engaged in ceremonies or other aspects of tribal life. Native American portraits really did not appear until contemporary times. (right: Teri Greeves, Gourd Dance: Tennis Shoes, 2003, Men's high-top tennis shoes (size 10), glass beads, silver lined seed beads, bugle beads, Museum purchase; funds provided by the Rand Forum, 2003.22 a,b)

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