Smithsonian’s Modern Masters makes final stop at Reynolda House

by Keith Barber

Adolph Gottlieb “Three Discs” 1960, oil Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of SC Johnson & Son, Inc

It feels a bit like Christmas this week at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem as the museum’s staff is busy installing the latest exhibition, Modern Masters from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which will open Oct. 7.

“We’re all kind of excited about the installation process because the works are so large,” said Sarah Smith, the museum’s director of marketing and communications. “We had 23 crates delivered and there’s 43 works of art so some of the crates have more than one work of art in them. But just the sheer process of getting the crates off the trucks and getting them out to the gallery — it’s kind of like a shuffle game because we recreate the gallery with each exhibition.

“I like to say the installation, the size of the works, and the complexity of that piece of it is sort of analogous to the significance of the show itself,” Smith continued. “So I think it’s going to be a fun one for us.”

The museum has designed a number of programs to entice visitors and art lovers to engage with the works by such American masters as Josef Albers, Romare Bearden, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. On opening day, the museum will host a number of “Looking Aloud” gallery discoveries. Visitors will get the chance to tour the exhibition with museum staff members and discuss their reactions to the paintings and sculptures by artists who burst onto the American art scene in the 1950s.

Allison Perkins, the museum’s executive director, said bringing the Smithsonian exhibit to Reynolda House has been a three-year process and credited Virginia Mecklenburg, the exhibit’s curator, for finding works that capture a pivotal point in American art.

“These artists really helped put American art on the international scene,” Perkins said. “It’s when American artists finally gained entry into the larger sphere of the art world. And their use of color, brushstroke, texture, the dynamism of this new form of not only painting but creating three-dimensional objects is what helped call more attention to American art.”

Reynolda House is renowned for its collection of three centuries of American art, but its strength doesn’t lie in its holdings of mid-20th tury abstract art.

“This exhibition really helps us tell the continued trajectory of the story of American art running through the mid-century, from the 1940s up through the 1970s,” Perkins said.

The exhibition is broken up into three parts —“Significant Gestures,” “Optics and Order” and “New Images of Man.” In “Signficant Gestures,” visitors will see artists “expressing their ideas on canvas in broad, big, bold strokes,” Perkins said. Featured artists in this section include Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Franz Kline. “Optics and Order” represents artists utilizing bold swaths of color but in a neatly organized, almost linear fashion, Perkins said.

North Carolina artist Romare Bearden’s work is included in the “New Images of Man” section of the exhibit.

“His unconventional use of collage materials in creating his imagery really lends a new form of expression to this period in art,” Perkins said.

Reynolda House has made great strides in making the Smithsonian exhibition as accessible as possible to the public. Next to each work will be an artist biography and artist quote. A set of 10 to 12 open-ended questions will be available to visitors to help them engage with the works on a deeper level. Perkins said. And for four four consecutive Thursday evenings, Reynolda House will present a program “Modern Thursdays” from Oct. 13 to Nov. 3. The programs will feature beat poetry, avant garde music and film, and lectures on mid-20 cen- th century architecture as well as the social and political unrest of the 1950s. The museum will extend its hours until 8 p.m. on those nights. Admission is $5.

“We see having this show as a significant contribution to mid-20th century American art,” Perkins said. “To see this collection in one place is unique. We’re bringing it to the entire state.”