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“Polemical History Lesson”: Illustrated Companion to my WSJ Piece on the Brooklyn Museum’s American Rehang

There’s a difference between displaying political art and politicizing art.

As I argue in A Polemical History Lesson, my piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, the Brooklyn Museum’s rehang and reinterpretation of its American art collection crosses that line, fixating on everything that’s shameful or elitist about our country’s past. Other critics have praised the new interpretive spin for eschewing American “triumphalism.” But after a while, I began to feel that I was intended to hang my head in shame, rather than revel in the verve of our country’s creative outpourings.

Anne Pasternak, who a year ago became the Brooklyn Museum’s director, succeeding Arnold Lehman, told the audience for a panel of female art museum directors in NYC (assembled on Monday by ArtTable) that she wants her museum “to help shape social change.” That preoccupation seemed to be driving the American installation.

Pasternak speaking to the ArtTable panelists Screenshot of live feed from "New Visions, New Voices"

Anne Pasternak, speaking to her fellow ArtTable panelists on Monday
Screenshot of live feed from “New Visions, New Voices”

Below are images of works that I mention in today’s WSJ, with excerpts from my piece in italics (plus additional commentary):

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Her [director Anne Pasternak‘s] concept was commendable—to simplify and clarify installations that many visitors had regarded as chaotic, confusing and cluttered….The reinstallation displays 35% fewer objects than before, eliminating the practice of double-hanging works (one above the other).

Nancy Spector, poached by Pasternak from the Guggenheim Museum to be Brooklyn’s deputy director and chief curator, told journalists at the preview for the new installation that “we’ve pulled way back on exhibition design.

The new look is clean, bordering on antiseptic:


This [the de-cluttering] means that certain artists are no longer shown in-depth: For example, Marsden Hartley, an American Modernist painter whose styles ranged from realism to abstraction, was formerly represented by four paintings; now there’s only one:

Marsden Hartley, "Painting No. 48," 1913

Marsden Hartley, “Painting No. 48,” 1913

The gold, ceramics and carvings of Native Americans from North, Central and South America take their rightful place at the beginning of this chronological story of American art, with other American Indian objects interspersed throughout the galleries.

Pendants in the form of a spider and an eagle, Chiriqui society, Costa Rica, 1000-1500

Pendants in the forms of a spider and an eagle, Chiriqui society, Costa Rica, 1000-1500

One Native American object encountered later in the galleries is this Navajo blanket that, as we learn, “combin[ed] commercial wool with strands from unraveled Army blankets”—a forced resourcefulness necessitated by “the U.S. Army’s slaughter of their [the Navajos’] churro sheep.”

"Second Phase Chief's Blanket," 1865-80

“Second Phase Chief’s Blanket,” Navajo, 1865-80

The decision to integrate a large selection of objects created by Native Americans into the broader story of American art is commendable but has the disorienting effect of breaking up the integrity of the museum’s extensive Native American holdings, most of which are still arrayed in their own suite of galleries.

John Singleton Copley, born poor but risen high on the strength of prodigious talent, is caught in the net of “Pan-American Privilege.”…His portrait, c. 1772, of New England monarchist Abigail Pickman Gardiner, dressed in “the height of London fashion,” is one of three depictions of “privileged Americans” leading off the display devoted to the Colonial era.

Copley, "Mrs. Sylvester (Abigail Pickman) Gardiner, c. 1772, between works by Miguel Cabrera and (attributed to) Nehemiah Partridge

Copley, “Mrs. Sylvester (Abigail Pickman) Gardiner, c. 1772, between works by Miguel Cabrera and (attributed to) Nehemiah Partridge

The label for Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait of George Washington recounts how our nation’s leader was thanked by John Hancock (who had persuaded Washington to sit for Peale) for “the attention you have shown to my property” during the liberation of Boston.

Peale, "George Washington," 1776

Peale, “George Washington,” 1776

The sublime landscapes of Hudson River School painters—including Albert Bierstadt’s monumental “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” (1866) [illustrated in my WSJ piece] and Asher B. Durand’s “The First Harvest in the Wilderness” (1855), portraying a farmer in a newly cleared field, with his name, “Graham,” inscribed on a boulder—are said to illustrate how “the national mandate for progress” mitigated against “the preservation of the unspoiled wilderness.

The Durand figures prominently in the museum’s history: Its label tells us that the Brooklyn Museum commissioned this painting in 1855, “using funds bequeathed by one of its founders, Augustus Graham, thus officially establishing its collection of American art”:

Durand, "First Harvest in the Wilderness," 1855

Durand, “First Harvest in the Wilderness,” 1855

In a section devoted to the rise of cities, “dark, dull tones” are seen as evidence of the “harsh monotony” of workers’ lives in “Job Hunters” (1932-33), a depiction by Brooklyn labor activist Maurice Kish of men huddled outside a looming industrial plant.

Maurice Kish, "Job Hunters," 1932-33

Maurice Kish, “Job Hunters,” 1932-33

The inclusion of the little-known Kish illustrates two advantages of the curators’ reshuffling of their deck: They have called attention to works of local significance and uncovered other little-knowns who stand up to the big names.

Brooklynites in the show include the couple in these portraits that, as the label tells us, “were painted around the time that the sitters moved from New York to Brooklyn, where David Leavitt had an interest in Brooklyn White Lead Company (later Dutch Boy Paint). One of his partners in this enterprise was the Brooklyn Museum’s founder, Augustus Graham”:

Samuel Lovett Waldo, "David Leavitt and Maria Clarissa Leavitt," c. 1820-25

Samuel Lovett Waldo, “David Leavitt and Maria Clarissa Leavitt,” c. 1820-25

African-American artist Charles Ethan Porter’s “Still Life With Fruit Basket” (1878) now makes a worthy companion for Severin Roesen’s more showy “Still Life With Fruit” (c. 1860) hanging beside it.

Charles Ethan Porter, "Still Life with Fruit Basket," 1878

Charles Ethan Porter, “Still Life with Fruit Basket,” 1878

Severin Roesen, "Still Life with Fruit," c. 1860

Severin Roesen, “Still Life with Fruit,” c. 1860

African-American and female artists, well known and obscure, get more wall space here than in most other comprehensive American art installations.

This fine recent acquisition checks several boxes—black, female, lesser known artist:

Laura Wheeler Waring, "Woman with Bouquet," c. 1940

Laura Wheeler Waring, “Woman with Bouquet,” c. 1940

The eye-popping visual coda features giant female nudes by Mickalene Thomas, Philip Pearlstein and Joan Semmel:

This glitzy 21st-century work by Thomas is an anomaly of chronology in an installation that otherwise ends in the 1970’s:

Michalene Thomas, "A Little Taste Outside of Love," 2007

Michalene Thomas, “A Little Taste Outside of Love,” 2007

I know I’m going to catch flak for this, but as someone who just learned today that my third grandchild will be a boy, I couldn’t help thinking that the schoolchildren who throng the museum on weekdays to learn about and gain pride in American culture and history were not a target audience for this display.

The American reinstallation is most comprehensive and problematic of three permanent-collection overhauls overseen by Pasternak. The other two are Egyptian art and European art. I hope to address  those and other Brooklyn-related developments in future posts. That said, my blogging time will be constrained, near-term, by the demands of another mainstream-media assignment.

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