Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s inaugural exhibition of its collection featured more than 450 works of art, representing nearly half of its entire holdings at the time of the museum’s opening on Nov. 11, 2011.
Now, one year later, the museum’s collection has grown to include a total of 2,040 artworks. Acquisitions over the past year have included five sculptures, eight paintings, one mixed media work, and 504 works on paper, which includes drawings, photographs, watercolors, and a collection of 468 prints made by American artists between 1925 and 1945.
Crystal Bridges has an active acquisition program, guided by Executive Director Don Bacigalupi, museum curators and board leadership. Central to the consideration of any acquisition is the museum’s mission to tell the story of America through its great works of art, which include works by artists with household names as well as remarkable works by significant but lesser-known artists.
The museum has already hosted a public unveiling of one of the super-stars of the recent acquisitions — a large, luminous painting by the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko, which is now on view as part of the museum’s temporary exhibition See the Light: the Luminist Tradition in American Art.
This exhibition also features a recently acquired early work by glass artist Dale Chihuly. The Rothko will move to the museum’s Twentieth-Century Art Gallery following the close of See the Light in late January. In addition, there are several other show-stoppers among the museum’s inaugural year acquisitions that visitors may look forward to seeing in the galleries in the months ahead.
THOMAS HART BENTON
Missouri-native artist Thomas Hart Benton is a well-known regional favorite. “Tobacco Sorters” was originally commissioned by the American Tobacco Company, which wanted to connect its consumers to the farmers who grew their product. The work is currently displayed as a key component in the museum’s Early Twentieth-Century Art Gallery.
“A larger work than the other Bentons we have in our collection, this immediately filled a niche in our early twentieth-century area,” said Curator of American Art Kevin Murphy. “It had been in a private collection, and it was important to the owners that it be shared with a larger audience.”
Among the recent acquisitions is an iconic portrait by American folk artist Ammi Phillips titled “Woman in Black Ruffled Dress,” painted ca. 1835. Phillips was born in Connecticut and though he was a prolific artist, with more than 400 paintings now attributed to him, it was not until 1968 that he was positively identified as the artist.
Phillips’s earlier works used a soft pastel palette. Later works, such as Crystal Bridges’ new acquisition, used much bolder hues and darker backgrounds.
“A self-taught New England portrait painter, Phillips is considered one of the most important folk artists of his era,” Murphy said, “which is an area in which we’ve been looking to broaden our offerings.”
Phillips’s Woman in Black Ruffled Dress has recently been installed in Crystal Bridges’ Colonial to Early Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery.
Other new additions include “Marble,” by William Wetmore Story’s (1819-1895), and “A Mayan Garden,” by Miriam Schapiro.
PRINTS FOR THE PEOPLE
A large portion of the year’s acquisitions comprise a collection of 468 early twentieth-century prints amassed by a private collector. The collection features artists working in styles that range from Benton’s Regionalism to Charles Sheeler’s Precisionism, as well as all of the major printmaking media: drypoint, etching, engraving, lithography, screenprint, woodcut, and wood engraving.
The collection contains artists best known for their work in other media, such as Benton and Sheeler, but also those who chose to express themselves almost exclusively through prints, including Martin Lewis and Benton Spruance. Female artists are prominent, with Ida Abelman, Minna Citron, Mabel Dwight, Jolan Gross-Bettelheim, Riva Helfond, and Bernarda Bryson Shahn represented through at least one, but often multiple, works.
“This acquisition dramatically expands Crystal Bridges’ holdings of prints, opening new avenues for the museum’s ability to interpret the rich history of American art,” said Murphy, who has curated an exhibition from the new collection.
A selection of these recently acquired prints will be on view at Crystal Bridges from December 21 through April 22 in a temporary exhibition titled Art Under Pressure: Early Twentieth Century American Prints. These works were created between 1925 and 1945, a time of great social change and hardship for the American people. Printmaking came into its own during the Depression and World War II era as a fine-art medium.
Artists who worked primarily in other media often used prints as a means of experimentation or to work out ideas. Other artists whose primary medium was printmaking began to experiment with technique, expanding the limits of the medium to create original artworks that could be inexpensively produced in multiples and distributed. Mail-order art dealers worked with artists to produce limited edition prints and promote them in catalog format from which consumers could purchase a print for a few dollars. It was the first time original artwork was within the financial means of average Americans.
“There are a number of prints that deal with the Depression head on and take an approach that looks at people hard at work and trying to improve their circumstances,” said Murphy. “These are printmakers who themselves were often living at the margins and could really understand their fellow blue-collar workers. The collection represents a moment where the American artist and the American people were in sync in a way that we haven’t seen since the Hudson River School painters, and we don’t see again for another generation.”