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Two Newport Museums Host Shows of American Art

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Two Newport Museums Host Shows of American Art

June 10th, 2009 by billfarrell

Wed, 10 Jun 2009 21:55:58Works by Ashcan School artist Robert Henri — such as Portrait of Catherine Omalley — are included in the Newport Art MuseumÂ’s “The Art of Life” exhibit.Thanks to some lucky timing, two Bellevue Avenue neighbors — the National Museum of American Illustration and the Newport Art Museum — are hosting summer exhibits that not only showcase American art but celebrate the depth and variety of the American experience. If these shows don’t make you want to break out the Fourth of July bunting a few weeks early, nothing will.

Certainly, the timing couldn’t be better for “Norman Rockwell: American Imagist,” a much-acclaimed traveling exhibit that opened June 6 at the illustration museum. Not only is Rockwell’s artistic reputation at its highest point in decades — nowadays even highbrow critics find it had to dismiss him as a mere “illustrator” — but his trademark blend of wry humor and gentle populism feels especially welcome in these topsy-turvy times. (One wonders, for example, what this outspoken supporter of America’s civil rights struggle would have made of the election of the country’s first black president.)

Organized by museum co-founders Laurence and Judy Cutler, the NMAI show features more than 60 Rockwell works, including dozens of rarely seen pieces on loan from private collections. Highlights range from Rockwell’s first-ever magazine cover (a rather nondescript fishing scene commissioned by a forerunner of Field and Stream) to later illustrations that tackle more politically sensitive topics such as civil rights, school desegregation, foreign aid and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

(If that makes “Norman Rockwell: American Imagist” sound more like a political debate than an art exhibit, don’t worry. The show, which is coming off a sold-out run at the Naples (Fla.) Museum of Art, also features many of Rockwell’s now-iconic scenes of small-town life.)

By contrast, “The Art of Life: Selections from the Terrence and Suzanne Murray Collection,” focuses on two subjects that Rockwell mostly avoided: seascapes and city scenes.

Drawn from the collection of former Fleet Boston CEO Terry Murray and his wife, the show, which opens Saturday at the Newport Art Museum, features a wide range of American-made artworks — everything from a dramatic shipwreck scene by 19th-century painter William Bradford to a cache of lithographs by the great (though still underrated) Ashcan School artist George Bellows.

Other highlights include paintings by Bellows’ fellow Ashcan School artists John Sloan (including a wonderful Impressionist-tinged view of sailboats on Gloucester Harbor) and Robert Henri (whose charming portrait of a young Irish girl is one of the stars of the exhibit.)

Even some lesser-known artists manage to make a splash — notably Leon Kroll, a turn-of-the-century artist who contributes lively, paint-speckled view of the Maine coast, and Mabel Woodward, a Rhode Island painter who more than holds her own against the show’s heavyweights.

Like most collectors’ shows, “The Art of Life” has some thin patches. (Though the Murrays are avid collectors of Ashcan School artists such as Bellows and Henri, their collection doesn’t have the kind of thematic or even qualitative consistency you’d expect to find in a traditional museum exhibition. On the other hand, the Bellows lithographs alone are worth the price of admission — especially the iconic 1921 boxing print The White Hope and an equally good revival-meeting scene, Billy Sunday.)

In fact, both shows have some quirky aspects.

“The Art of Life,” for example, freely mixes works from the Ashcan School, a movement that celebrated the grit and glamour of Jazz Age New York, with paintings of ships (Bradford), sailors (Sloan) and sun-bathers (Woodword). It’s an unusual approach — call it an artistic version of surf and turf — although NAM curator Nancy Grinnell does her best to make sure everyone gets along.

The NMAI show, meanwhile, is missing some of Rockwell’s most famous works — notably the great World War II-era paintings known as The Four Freedoms and the equally famous Triple Self-Portrait. (Fortunately, all five paintings — and, yes, all of Rockwell’s cover illustrations started out as oil paintings — are on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.)

Following the show’s convoluted layout can also be a problem. Things start off well, with roughly a dozen paintings and other works installed in the museum’s newly restored Tiffany Loggia (so-called because Tiffany & Co. designed the nature-themed ceiling murals). But keeping track of the rest of the show, which wends through a series of upstairs rooms before ending in a basement gallery, requires some advanced orienteering skills. Prepare to backtrack more than once.

Still, these are minor complaints.

At NMAI, the Cutlers have put together an exhibit that spans nearly the entirety of Rockwell’s five-decade career. True, America’s greatest illustrator could be hopelessly sentimental at times — witness The Runaway, a 1922 painting showing a teary-eyed boy being comforted by a circus clown and his faithful dog. Though beautifully painted — the clown’s polka-dot suit, for example, practically pops off the canvas — the scene is as cloyingly sweet (and about as nourishing) as a gumdrop.

Yet the show, which is sponsored by Newport’s William Vareika Fine Arts gallery, also features more ambitious works. A case in point is Bridge Game — The Bid, an aerial view of four bridge players that’s a marvel of technical skill and sly sophistication. Created in 1948 for Rockwell’s longtime employer, The Saturday Evening Post, it’s the kind of image — at once mundane and magical — that Rockwell excelled at.

Even the show’s Where’s Waldo layout turns out to be a plus. While tracking down individual Rockwell paintings can be a chore, it’s also helps showcase works by other illustrators such as J.C. Leyendecker, Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish, all of whom Rockwell admired.

“The Art of Life,” meanwhile, probably could have used some extra editing, especially the beach scenes. Still, there are some wonderful pieces scattered around NAM’s Cushing Memorial galleries: Bradford’s dramatic, Rembrandt-esque The Wreck of an Emigrant Ship; a lovely nude study by William Glackens, in which he seems to be channeling the work of French artist Pierre Bonnard; a small gouache and pencil study by Winslow Homer; and of course anything by Bellows.

So, yes, both shows probably could have been better. But if you love art — and especially if you love American art — you’ll put “Norman Rockwell: American Imagist” and “The Art of Life: Selections from the Terrence and Suzanne Murray Collection” on your summer to-do list.

“Norman Rockwell: American Imagist” runs through Aug. 31 at the National Museum of American Illustration, 492 Bellevue Ave., Newport. Hours: the museum is open Saturday 10-4 and Sunday 11-4 for general admission and for a 2 p.m. guided tour on Friday; all other times are by reservation only. Admission: $18 adults, $16 seniors, $12 students with I.D. and $8 ages 5-12. Contact: (401) 851-8949, ext. 18 or www.americanillustration.org.

“The Art of Life: Selections from the Terrence and Suzanne Murray Collection” runs through Oct. 12 at the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10-5 and Sunday noon-5. Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students and military with I.D., 5 and under admitted free. Contact: (401) 848-8200 or www.newportartmuseum.org.

Spring Seasons Inn is a Newport Rhode Island Bed and Breakfast located in the heart of all of the exciting activities in Newport Rhode Island including the Newport Art Museum and the museum of American Illustration.
bvansicl@projo.com

Newport, Rhode Island’s Own Artst Howard Newman

May 12th, 2009 by billfarrell

Tue, 12 May 2009 21:59:37by Ernie Newton

A visit to Howard Newman’s blue-shingled historic home is marked by a dismal, rainy Monday afternoon. A converted garage, steps from his kitchen, contains the studio where he creates the majority of his works. Drops of water sprinkle gently from the sky and the artist adjusts his navy beret over his gray mop of hair, to shield his eyes from the foul weather. Newman sighs and mentions that in his younger days he was creating over 50 sculptures in a year. Even though the thick grey fog settles outside his door, Newman’s spirits are high and he exudes an aura of optimism.

Speaking with a pleasant smile across his face and glasses perched on his nose, his composure creates a sense of calm in the workroom. He scoots up onto a metal stool and rests his hands on his chest. Instinctively wise, even beyond his 65 years, Newman’s astute, yet comforting presence resembles that of a grandfather figure. His wealth of knowledge and success in the realm of art is extensive. Honored as a Fulbright Scholar, he was offered the opportunity to live with his wife in a fifteenth century farmhouse in Italy, where he further pursued his art. Currently the couple dedicates their time to the awe-inspiring restoration of Portsmouth Abbey. A culmination of such experiences has set the groundwork for his solid insight on the realities of life.

As one of Newport’s master artists, Newman’s expertise ranges from sculptures to paintings to restoration of fine metal and objects, to antique mechanisms. A review by Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, writes that Newman “is something of a phenomenon. His art has the look of something that was born fully matured. All sense of struggle, hesitation and indecision is effectively concealed in its sleek bronze forms … addresses the eye with an unashamed confidence and power-a sculpture secure in a timeless sensibility of its own.”

An assortment of machinery for his silversmith projects lines the walls of his workroom and various knick-knacks are scattered on the counter. “I am absolutely fascinated by materials,” Newman says as he sits back on his seat and dangles a tiny wire item in his fingers. Art requires an enormous amount of concentration. “Patience isn’t even something we talk about here,” Newman said. Despite the tedious work and great amount of labor, Newman most enjoys the problem solving aspect. In terms of working style, his designs are first drawn or modeled and then “things just come out of the fog.” Working through the issues to find a solution thrills him. “A lot of people see art as a social thing,” Newman said. “I do it for my own sensibilities.”
Many are surprised to learn that Newman did not always aspire to be an artist. Instead, he received a background education in architecture, cultural anthropology and classical literature from Miami University and had aspirations of becoming a lawyer after graduation. Wavering between career paths, he decided to take the Johnson O’Connor aptitude test in Boston, Mass. He chuckled while revealing the results, which indicated that he is a man that should be working independently in his garage.

Newman’s countless years of dedication to art have not gone unnoticed; he is both locally and nationally recognized. A critic from the Los Angeles Times said that Newman, “creates figures that combine the geometric precision of Cubism with the more rounded forms of Futurist sculpture.” In addition to the media buzz he has created over the years, museums such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Il Museo dei Bozzetti in Pietrasana, Italy, as well as others throughout the world, currently display his art. In fact, the Newport Art Museum is proud to have two of Newman’s sculptures situated on their lawn. One was acquired by the museum as a gift of Mrs. John Donnell in 2001 and the other is on loan from the artist. Nancy W. Grinnell, curator of the Museum said, “Howard Newman’s bold, modern bronze sculptures have anchored the grounds and entrances to the Newport Art Museum for over a decade and symbolize our commitment to high quality art of our region.”

In spite of Newman’s respected craftsmanship as a sculptor, he and his wife now fully invest their artistic abilities on long-term projects. He insists that everything he did his whole career all comes together in these larger restorations. For instance, currently they are helping spearhead a $4 million, year and a half restoration on Portsmouth Abbey. Newman expresses that “it has been quite an enormous project,” as indicated by the 20,000 feet of gold wire involved in the process. “Yes it has been a very long project, we are anticipating the finished product this upcoming month,” Newman’s wife said. When questioned about the main difference between his sculpture art and fine metal restoration Newman said, “Many people have a hard time with abstract art because there is no frame of reference involved.” Therefore, Newman has created a multimedia online presentation to create a tangible visual for viewers in understanding the Abbey’s incredible wire ceiling art.
Newman eloquently speaks about what he values in life as well as his understanding of the human experience. Enriching the mind with a solid education is key to shaping a person’s understanding of himself and the world around him. By embracing learning, inevitably vision and judgment become clearer. “When you stop learning, in a sense, you die,” Newman said. While hiring workers for his business, he and his wife first look for a liberal arts education on someone’s resume. The couple can teach someone to work with their hands, yet it is the mental training from an education that allows them to be better suited to adapt to any environment. Newmans Ltd. is a business that incorporates both mental and physical work, so it is helpful when people are multifaceted and open-minded.

An individual has the power to “choose how to spend every minute of their life” on Earth. Newman stresses that when making such decisions, people should keep in mind that “money has no value in ultimate terms.” Human beings don’t count money on their deathbed. Years slip by and old age can creep up on people, so avoid regret and experience all you can while vivacious and young. Regarding his own experience with the aging process, Newman points out that “retiring is a meaningless concept.” He thinks it seems boring and would much rather refer to it as simply “changing the proportion” of his lifestyle.

A piece of advice he offers artists and students alike who are about to graduate college during the current economic crisis, is to take advantage of Obama’s Peace Corps programs. After college Newman and his wife joined the Peace Corps. For several years, the newly weds lived in the jungles of Puerto Rico, where they learned survival skills in the wilderness. He said that after living in such conditions, there is nothing to fear in life. Joining one of these organizations is “the best thing you can do, it pays a stipend and changes your life.” Rather than heading directly into the relatively self- serving work force, Newman says people “need to expand what their idea is of a human being.”

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