Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery

The decades following World War II were heady times for American art.  LifeTime, and Newsweek brought images of contemporary abstraction to households throughout the country.  With the blessing of the U.S. government, New York museums toured exhibitions to the capitals of Europe.  Galleries discovered new markets in the country’s growing middle class, and newspapers celebrated American culture as an equal partner with technology in catapulting the United States to preeminence on the world stage.  No longer dependent on teaching positions or occasional odd jobs, painters and sculptors enjoyed success, celebrity, and international acclaim.

Many of the country’s leading artists had begun to paint or sculpt in the 1930s as beneficiaries of WPA-era government support.  Others were immigrants who fled to the United States as Nazi power grew in Germany.  Some were highly educated;  others abandoned school at an early age to pursue lives as artists.  Working in New York, California, the South, and abroad, they probed human experience and the value of rational systems in the creative process.  They blended knowledge gleaned from old master art, the modernism of Picasso and Matisse, Jungian and Existential philosophy, and Greek and Roman mythology in abstract compositions that addressed current social concerns and personal history.  Mixing hardware-store paint with expensive artist colors and bits of paper torn from magazines, they linked their work with contemporary life.  Aided in their efforts by a group of young dealers, prominent critics, and the influential editor of Art News magazine, abstract artists gained credibility.  No longer dismissed as irrelevant or incomprehensible, abstraction became a widely discussed national style.

Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum examines the complex nature of American art in the mid-twentieth century.  Featuring thirty-one of the most celebrated artists who came to maturity in the 1950s, the exhibition traces the history of this epochal period through forty-three key paintings and sculpture selected from the Museum’s collection.  The exhibition is organized according to three broadly-conceived themes:  “Significant Gestures” explores the autographic mark, executed in sweeping strokes of brilliant color which became the expressive vehicle for Franz Kline, Michael Goldberg, Hans Hofmann, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, and others who came to be known as abstract expressionists.  “Optics and Order” highlights Josef Albers, his exploration of mathematical proportion and carefully balanced color, and the artists who built on his ideas:  Ilya Bolotowsky, Louise Nevelson, Esteban Vicente, Ad Reinhardt, and Anne Truitt.  “New Images of Man” includes Nathan Oliveira, Romare Bearden, Larry Rivers, Jim Dine, David Driskell, and Grace Hartigan, each of whom searched their surroundings and personal lives for vignettes emblematic of larger universal concerns.

The exhibition will explore the lives of painters and sculptors who sought to understand the motivations that shape human life, and, in doing so, both created a compelling new art and emerged as visual spokesmen in post-war America. Reynolda House is the final venue of only six museums across the country to host the exhibition, and the only one in North Carolina.


The William R. Kenan, Jr. Endowment Fund, the C.F. Foundation in Atlanta, and members of the Smithsonian Council for American Art have generously contributed to Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Reynolda House received support for this exhibition from Lead Sponsor Hillsdale Fund, Inc.; Contributing Sponsors Hawthorn PNC Family Wealth, Mia Celano and Skip Dunn, and Flow Companies, Inc.; and Exhibition Partners Harriet and Elms Allen, Cathleen and Ray McKinney, and Debbie and Mike Rubin. A portion of this exhibition is funded by the Charles H. Babcock, Jr. Community and Arts Initiative Endowment and the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.