Curator's guide: The Huntington expands on American art

Shreve & Co. silver vase and tray (c. 1904-7) with California landscapes / Photo: Tim Street-Porter

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has expanded its American galleries yet again. With this summer's unveiling of five rooms displaying nearly 120 works -- all from the 20th century -- the home of "The Blue Boy" and other older British gems has affirmed its commitment to presenting pieces (including modern ones) from this side of the Atlantic.

For Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art, more space means the chance not only to show more stuff but also to show it in ways that "fill in gaps," "broaden conversations," and spotlight "resonances," i.e., aesthetic and thematic connections. One example: "A Shreve silver vase that incorporates California flora has, depending on where you stand, a lovely backdrop of paintings representing the California landscape."

In our conversations, Smith offered some other thoughts about what you should know and see while visiting the new sections of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

The backstory

The expansion has added 5,400 square feet, enabling curators to exhibit several notable recent acquisitions, items that had been waiting in the wings and loans that, says Smith, "enhance our own collection, which is relatively young .... It has helped us explore the 20th century in greater depth as well as areas such as the art of California and the West."

She explains that the nearly century-old Huntington had some American works but didn't have a gallery dedicated to American art until 30 years ago. A gift in memory of philanthropist Scott included about 50 paintings and funds for a building, which opened in 1984. The San Marino institution's U.S. holdings now number more than 12,000 pieces. Over the years, the Scott complex has roughly tripled in size; the latest addition (converted from storage space) has increased the display area to about 21,000 square feet.

Eclectic array

Thumbnail image for lao-dove-august.jpg The first room features early 20th-century landscapes as well as objects such as the Shreve silver. (Smith says the galleries, which cover the colonial period to the 1980s, integrate fine and decorative arts and are arranged "thematically and loosely chronologically.") "The Long Leg," the c.1930 seascape by the realist painter Edward Hopper, has moved here. Joining it is the recently acquired "Lattice and Awning" (1941) by Arthur Dove, the nation's first major abstract painter. "The Dove adds a huge amount to the conversations we can have about artistic trajectory and landscape in the first half of the century," says Smith. "We also can have broader conversations about what was happening nationally because we include California and Western artists such as O'Keeffe and Dixon, along with Eastern artists such as Hopper and Sheeler."

Above: Arthur Dove's "Lattice and Awning" (1941) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Weston's gift

Edward Weston, one of the pioneers of modern American photography, made 500 prints of his work just for the Huntington. A rotation of selections from this trove -- many from the late 1930s -- will be exhibited in the second room during the next year. The initial lineup includes still lifes and images from the South, the Sierra and Southern California.

'Monumental and muscular'

Sargent Claude Johnson pipe-organ screen (1937) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

A 1937 redwood pipe-organ screen by Sargent Claude Johnson dominates one wall of a room filled with what Smith calls "monumental and muscular" art from the '30s and beyond. The Huntington purchased the huge carved piece -- its first major artwork by an African American -- in 2011. Among its "resonant" companions, says Smith, are two paintings (one a loan) by African American artist Charles White and Reginald Marsh's "The Locomotive" (1935), which, like Johnson's screen, resulted from a government commission.

Geometric abstraction and pop art

Thumbnail image for lao-smith-august.jpgIn the fourth room, Smith suggests viewing Tony Smith's two-piece bronze "For W.A." (1969) with Frederick Hammersley's "See Saw" (1966). These acquisitions are "fine examples of geometric abstraction and minimalism nicely expressed in sculpture and painting." Also of note, she says, are a Smith painting, the Huntington's two Warhols and borrowed works by Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and John McLaughlin. The curator adds that "more painterly expressions of abstraction" such as Sam Francis' "Free Floating Clouds" are gathered nearby -- in one of three spaces adjoining new rooms that "underwent changes so we could refine themes in adjacent areas."

Above: Tony Smith's sculpture "For W.A." (1969) and Frederick Hammersley's painting "See Saw" (1966) / Photo: Tim Street-Porter

Rauschenberg's inspiration

The prolific and protean Robert Rauschenberg credited a visit to the Huntington in the '40s with inspiring him to become an artist. Smith says this connection and "resonances with the permanent collection" helped influence the Huntington's decision to acquire "Global Loft (Spread)" in 2012. The 1979 multi-image painting anchors the fifth room, complemented by prints lent by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Karen Wada is an L.A.-based writer and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. This is her first piece for LA Observed.

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