Artists functioning both as educators and students

by Keith Barber

American Art: Circa 1950, installation view, Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2010. (courtesy photo)

“Every work has a story, but you might not see it in the work,” is the way that Xandra Eden, curator of exhibitions at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum describes their current exhibit, American Art: Circa 1950 – Selections from the Permanent Collection, that is on display until Oct. 24.

Because the exhibit, as the title implies, is entirely composed of material culled from the Weatherspoon’s permanent archives, many of the works come from people who taught at the Women’s College at the time or were associates and contemporaries of theirs.

Many of the works reflect the abstract impressionist style prevalent in post-World War II American visual art, music and literature, particularly in jazz and poetry. The influence of painter and educator Hans Hoffman, whose “push pull” theory that color and perspective could define space and form, and also create depth is also evident in the works on display. If you hurry, you can visit an exhibit of his work at the Weatherspoon, Hans Hoffman: Circa 1950, through Oct. 17.

“Hoffman became more famous for his teaching than his art,” says Eden, “which is the whole reason he taught.” She hopes that the exhibit conveys the role and influence that artist’s often play as educators and instructors to aspiring artists.

“The great thing about working at a university [art museum],” says Eden, “is seeing the interaction between the teachers and the students.”

John Opper is one of the dozens of notable artist’s to study with Hoffman. He left Hoffman’s New York School in 1945 and began teaching at the Woman’s College that same year. Opper’s work “Figure ’54” is on display in the exhibit.

It was Opper who returned from a trip to New York with a painting from contemporary Willem de Kooning’s famous Woman series and convinced the museum to purchase the piece that now its most valuable.

Joseph Albers — like Hoffman a European immigrant who transported expressionistic themes to a new generation of postwar American artists — gave his piece titled “High Up” to his friend and Women’s College Art professor Howard Thomas. After Thomas’ death he left the piece to his wife who in turn bequeathed it to the Weatherspoon Art Museum.

“The exhibit aims to illustrate the role Greensboro and specifically UNCG, played in the abstract expressionism movement in the United States at the time,” says Eden.

Albers taught at the Black Mountain School and, as Eden explained, the artistic community in 1950s America was not as wide and varied as today, allowing for contemporaries across the state and nation to became associated and familiar with each other’s work.

Works of professor and Weatherspoon Art Museum founder Gregory Ivy and beloved Professor Walter “Wally” Barker from the period are also on display, as is a 1952 piece by then 18-year-old student Maud Gatewood titled “The Lost Soul.” Gatewood went on to a successful career as an artist and educator in her own right. Her work has been displayed in over 150 exhibitions nationwide and she founded the Art Department at UNC Charlotte that’s building now bears her name.

Founded by Ivy in 1941, the Weatherspoon Art Museum is keeping many of its most valued treasures — like de Kooning’s piece — for it’s 60 th anniversary exhibit next year. Other artists of the time period whose work is on display in the current exhibit include Hoffman pupils Giorgio Cavallon and Stephen Pace, Ethel Schwabacher’s “Blow Up My Gender, Jimmy (son of Max) Ernst and the jazz-influenced work of Vincent Pepi and Stuart Davis.

As UNCG plans on expansion both territorially and athletically in the coming years, it’s important that the school doesn’t forget it’s history; what the school, it’s faculty and students have already accomplished — or what it has stored in the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s vault.

wanna go?

Weatherspoon Art Museum; 500 Tate St., Greensboro; 336.334.5770; American Art: Circa 1950 – Selections from the Permanent Collection run through Oct. 24.