Americans In Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820–1920 at the Milwaukee Art Museum

During my study of American art history, most of the better known American artists made visits to Europe to study. It seems that they almost always visited London where a number of ex-pat artists made them welcome. And they almost always made it to Paris which was certainly the center of Western art at the time. And those wealthy enough or lucky enough to have a generous patron made it to Italy: Florence and Rome!

So I have thought very little about Spain’s influence on American art in general or painting in particular. So the theme of the current show at the Milwaukee Art Museum created a bit of doubt but then curiosity in my mind. And then Americans In Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820–1920 opened up a different view on Spain’s influences on American artists and it was a very pleasant surprise to find some very well known painters visited Spain and were influenced by the art, architecture, landscape, and the overall atmosphere of the place. And although very similar to the rest of Western Europe it is also very different.

Well, what will you see? Portraits and Landscapes and Genre Paintings…and nearly a room full of different views of the Alhambra (one of the most significant architectural sites in Spain from the time of Muslim rule in Medieval era)…and famous American artists showing just a little different perspective on their vision. Who exactly? Well; Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, James McNeill Whistler, and Robert Henri.

One thing you will notice about the epic landscapes is a sense of a much hotter brighter sun. The landscape lacks the lushness and greens and twinkle of many of the landscapes that we we are used to seeing in America or from France. Here the sun burns and the landscape takes on a bright ocher with hints of oranges, reds, and browns. It is quite striking and particularly revealing in some of the paintings of the Alhambra.

The portraits tend to be just a little more towards the realistic side given the influences of earlier Spanish portraiture. And the streetscapes and genre paintings are also bright…often more to the bright white of sunlight and it is apparent that the dress and customs of Spain seemed exotic to Americans in the nineteenth century as they may seem today (particularly the appeal of dancers…there is a room of paintings of Spanish dancers by an array of artists…and one in particular took on the role of muse).

So enough chatter…here are a few of my favorites. I apologize for some of the image quality. I was using my phone and I have a tendency to get a little wobbly. But I will put up a number of each type of painting if they’ll display cleaning…and there will be one extra surprise at the end.

William Merritt Chase: Girl in White; 1898 – 1901
Carrie Hill; View of Segovia; ca: 1925
John Singer Sargent; Hex Wood, Majorca; 1908
Elizabeth Boott; The Alhambra; 1881
Childe Hassam; Plaza de la Merced, Ronda; 1910
John Ferguson Weir: detail from The Alhambra, Granada, Spain: ca. 1901
Edwin Lord Weeks; Interior of a Mosque at Cordova; ca. 1880
El Greco: Saint Catherine; 1610 – 1614

Yes, I know he’s not American but he’s not Spanish either! And who can resist an El Greco!

So if you are interested in seeing this show, it is at the Milwaukee Art Museum through October 3, 2021. Due to continued pandemic concerns advance timed tickets are recommended and available…so check out that information here: Americans in Spain!

I plan to visit it again before it closes…so maybe I’ll see you there!!

Bisa Butler: Portraits, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This exhibition threw me for a loop. The photos and promotional lit for the show simply don’t do justice to the vibrant colors or the tactile sensation that quilting imbues on these portraits. And Ms. Butler’s subtle (yes subtle) color transitions from one shade/value to another are extremely effective, particularly in the faces, as we see the bright light highlights of certain features quietly shift into darker shadow as we move our view across a face.

I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Butler before this show and I am sorry that I hadn’t seen her work before now. She works with textiles and in this show of portraits, primarily quilts. This is an incredibly effective medium for her style of story telling and these portraits certainly do tell a story. We see and hear clear stories about family and community told with a personal warmth and pride that just feels so very very refreshing. And quilts allow her to work with these vivid colors probably more easily than paint and certainly on a larger scale as well. And the quilting technique allows her to build layers of color without having to think out exactly how to lay in that next vibrant color adjacent to the first.

And as I’ve said, the quilting process provides a certain tactile sensation. Far more interesting than painting while being more subtle and reflective than sculpture. And the colors and techniques here are just totally apropos to Ms. Butler’s vision. Simply amazing…this is an unforgettable show.

Now, some background for the Art Institute of Chicago web page: Bisa Butler: Portraits.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts vividly capture personal and historical narratives of Black life.

She strategically uses textiles—a traditionally marginalized medium—to interrogate the historical marginalization of her subjects while using scale and subtle detail to convey her subjects’ complex individuality. Together, Butler’s quilts present an expansive view of history through their engagement with themes such as family, community, migration, the promise of youth, and artistic and intellectual legacies.

and again here is the link to the AIC…this includes a six minute interview with Bisa Butler…more than worth those few minutes! And now, after telling you that the photos that I’ve seen don’t do justice to the physical works, I am going to share three of my favorite pieces from the show!

Black Star Family, First Class Tickets to Liberia
Dear Mama

Bia Butler states that her major influences are family photo albums, the philosophies of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Romare Bearden’s collages, Faith Ringgold’s quilts, and Gordon Parks’s photographs. And although they may not be direct influences, to my eyes there is a similarity in the use of background ‘textures’ to another contemporary artist, Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Obama’s portrait, and even Jacob Lawrence, who is best known for his migration series. I have examples of each below.

The Bisa Butler: Portraits show continues at the Art Institute until September 6, 2021. It is free with general admission to the museum. Currently the AIC is open limited hours, 11 AM to 6 PM Thursday through Monday with early openings each day at 10 AM for members. As of this writing, masks are required and social distancing enforced as best as they can. So I highly recommend seeing this show!!

Jacob Lawrence, The Wedding, 1948, the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. © Kehinde Wiley. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

photos of Bia Butler quilts taken at the Art Institute of Chicago by Ed Heinzelman

Jesus Rafael Soto: PENETRABLE sculpture and beyond:

I am not going to actually write about Jesus Rafael Soto because he is an artist that I just came across as a result of auditing a class in Latin American Art History. And this isn’t the type of art that generally appeals to me but the videos show the appeal of the actual work in situ and the audience and their interaction with his work. It is really quite compelling how it makes people happy and adventurous. So here are three videos, all a bit different. The first two discuss his Penetrable series which is what caught my attention. The third is an interview with Mr. Soto who is speaking in Spanish but it has English subtitles. It gives us insight into his work, his history and his legacy beyond the Penetrable. So I hope you enjoy:

Surprisingly Jesus Soto is well known in most of the world but a virtual stranger in the United States. There are a lot of videos on YouTube that describe or portray his art…and there are several longer documentaries as well…so enjoy getting lost in his work!