Yesterday, I took a trip down to Philadelphia to film a video promotion for my recent article in Public Art Dialogue on Confederate monuments and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement (more on that in a future post!). While I was there, I decided to stop in at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to visit Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics, a new exhibition that just opened at PAFA to coincide with the arrival of the Democratic National Convention just down the street later this month. Co-curated by my friend Anna Marley and Jodi Throckmorton and installed in the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, the show features a wide array of works from PAFA’s permanent collection, all based around the theme, of politics, humor, and protest in American art. Juxtaposing historical works from the American art canon with more recent pieces by contemporary artists, Happiness, Liberty, Life? offers a fresh, inclusive perspective that will delight visitors to PAFA.
Walking into the show, the visitor immediately encounters a fun pairing of old and new: four colossal figures from Red Grooms’ 1982 Philadelphia Cornucopia, placed alongside wooden statues of Wisdom and Justice carved by William Rush c. 1824. Both of these artists created these pieces in a celebratory atmosphere: Rush carved his statues to adorn a Grand Civic Arch in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Philadelphia, while Grooms conceived his enormous Cornucopia, originally a much larger installation with myriad sculpted forms, for the city of Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary. In preparation for this exhibit at PAFA, the figures of George Washington, Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were painstakingly restored by a team of conservators.
That opening salvo paves the way for a series of gallery spaces that focus on political figures, satirical cartoons, civil rights, and protest. Many viewers will be familiar with the famous representations displayed along the “Wall of Washington,” which offers views of the first President in painting and print slyly interspersed with offerings by contemporary artist Kathy Aoki specifically commissioned for the show. (Look closely for famous faces currently on the minds of voters today!) But even more impressive is the exhibition’s commitment to displaying work by a diverse range of modern and contemporary artists, including many works by women and artists of
color. These include Barbara Kruger, Faith Ringgold, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Horace Pippin and many more. Reflecting this diversity of perspectives is a wide array of artistic media, from traditional painting and sculpture to works on paper, fabric, and mixed media. The result is a vibrant cross-section of works by American artists commenting on American life.
Across the courtyard in the Historic Landmark Building, the exhibition continues with “Commanders in Chief: Portraits of Power in the Washington Foyer.” This installation places Grand Manner portraits of George Washington and George III from the PAFA collection in dialogue with a contemporary portrait bust of Washington by Brian Tolle, which renders the first President in beads and fiberglass. Also included in this installation is Elaine de Kooning’s 1963 portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which will be on display at PAFA through the summer.
Happiness, Liberty, Life? will be on display at PAFA through September 18, and you should check it out if you’re anywhere near Philadelphia. And on the way out, don’t miss the photo opportunity to take on the role of George Washington in Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait!
After my visit to PAFA and the meeting that brought me to Philadelphia for the day, I made one more stop to Logan Square to visit a monument. Summer is the time for course prep, and I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my classes for the fall, “War and Art in America.” I’m teaching the class in conjuction with PAFA’s fall exhibition World War I and American Art, and I am planning several field trips to take advantage of collections in Philadelphia to give students an opportunity to work directly with objects. Of course, public monuments are often the most visible artistic reminders of war, and I plan to deal with them extensively with my students this fall. Only a few blocks away from PAFA, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, designed by J. Otto Schweizer and dedicated in 1934, may end up on my list of field trips. Based on my brief visit yesterday (the temperatures were over 90 degrees and I was worn out by the hot sun!) the memorial appears to depict several African-American soldiers in World War I uniforms clustered around an allegorical figure holding two wreaths. As is common with soldiers’ and sailors’ monuments, the soldiers depicted appear to represent the various branches of the armed forces who participated in the war. Plaques on the sides of the monument recognize the soldiers of the American Revolution, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and World War I. There is definitely more to this story, and I look forward to figuring it out as I plan my fall syllabus. All in all, a stimulating trip to Philadelphia!