The four-year, $1 million reinstallation project has resulted in two dozen themed galleries on two floors, designed by architect Michael Graves for the exhibition of paintings and sculpture as well as furniture, silver, ceramics, daguerreotypes and film, folk art, and American Indian artifacts that provide a survey of 250 years of life in the United States.
The small inviting galleries devised by Graves glow with bold period colors such as fire engine red and dramatic lighting that can be described without fear of exaggeration as exciting as well as inviting. The exhibits are arranged chronologically and attempt to connect the work of American artists to the nation's history and culture by means of concisely worded introductory text cards displayed on free-standing pedestals.
"We wanted our visitors to look at the work within the broader contexts of the social, economic and cultural forces that helped shape it," said Joseph Jacobs, curator of American art at the museum. "We chose to give a title, 'Picturing America,' to this new permanent installation of American art because these 350 objects, taken together, tell a story."
In each gallery, one object is singled out for scrutiny in what consulting curator Holly Pyne Connor and staff designer Stephen Hutchins call "A Closer Look." This might be Hiram Power's pure white marble sculpture, "The Greek Slave" (1847), a work that makes reference to the young republic's interest in all things classical as well as to the growing Abolitionist movement.
Jacobs noted that a late 1850s painting by William Ranney, "The Pipe of Friendship," showing three frontiersmen on the Western plains sharing a pipe, is actually a symbol of American entrepreneurship painted in Hoboken, N. J., for the Greater New York market.
"It would have been sold to a businessman, someone who worked in an office back East but wanted to see himself as an adventurer like these three emblems of ruggedness," Jacobs said.
A handsome display of 18th century American portraits by such artists as John Singleton Copley and Charles Willson Peale makes the point that the artists' subjects belonged to the nouveau riche merchant class and wanted to be painted like English aristocrats. So they were pictured in sumptuous clothes surrounded by gleaming mahogany furniture and silver.
In the gallery with these portraits are displayed an elaborate 1752 gravestone and a high chest of drawers, a masterpiece in the Queen Anne style. Exhibited just as proudly in another gallery devoted to the popularity of Western landscapes, titled "Painting the American Paradise" are a beaded Sioux Indian cradle and an Indian chief's blanket, decorated with abstracted design images of nature.
"Here we have two different ways of looking at nature, made in virtually the same time and place but with totally different approaches," Jacobs pointed out. "An artist like Albert Bierstadt paints a picture of God's presence by making a realistic scene, and the chief's blanket evokes the sublime through horizontal bands of color which run off the edge into infinity, similar to the approach of 20th century artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Agnes Martin."
The new installation has a generous display of the work of black artists as well.
Included are an1805 portrait by Joshua Johnston, 1850s daguerreotypes of blacks by Augustus Washington, and one of Henry Ossawa Tanner's impressive Biblical paintings, "The Good Shepherd, which is displayed in a gallery devoted to the so-called Gilded Age that flourished after the Civil War. Later works include a 1930s Harlem Street scene by Jacob Lawrence and Alison Saar's sculpture, "Sweet Daddy Good Life," made in 1985.
The work of several lesser artists usually overlooked by museums is displayed to advantage. "At the Country Auction" by Minetta Good, active in the 1930s and 40s, is displayed along with typical American scenes painted by Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and Isabel Bishop. A feminist artist, Mimi Smith, is represented by a 1974 work of knotted thread and a tape measure titled "TV and Easy Chair."
But many of the works on display rank as American masterpieces, ranging from Copley's 1765 "Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Scott" to Andy Warhol's Pop era "Campbell's Tomato Juice Box."
Outstanding are Augustus St. Gaudens' bronze, "Abraham Lincoln: The Man," Winslow Homer's Civil War painting, "Near Andersonville," Thomas Moran's landscape, "Sunset on Long Island," Albert Pinkham Ryder's "Diana's Hunt," and paintings by Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, and George Segal.
Also on view are Thomas J. White's cocky wooden cigar-store figure, "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines," photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston, a magnificent Tiffany punch bowl, a monumental Japanese-style vase from Cincinnati's Rookwood pottery, early films from Thomas Edison's studio including "Rube and Mandy Go to Coney Island," and a metal cocktail table designed by Donald Deskey.
To remind visitors that this is a growing collection, the museum's latest American acquisition is on display. It is Arthur Dove's "Abstraction No. 3," dated 1910, a small but exquisite paintings of billowing purplish forms.