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'Behold, America!' Showcases The History Of American Art

November 14, 2012 1:03 p.m.


Hugh Davies, The David C. Copley Director and CEO, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Amy Galpin, assistant curator, San Diego Museum of Art.

John Wilson, executive director, Timken Museum of Art.

Related Story: 'Behold, America!' Showcases The History Of American Art


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. American art has had to fight its way to international prominence after years of being thought of as provincial and not quite as good as European art. In a similar way, San Diego's great art museums have had to struggle to find their place in the nation's art work. Now a show in San Diego features the remarkable American art in the permanent collections of our museums. The show is called behold, America. And joining me to talk about it are my guests, Hugh Davies, welcome to the program.

DAVIES: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Amy Galpin is here, assistant curator at the San Diego museum of art. Welcome.

GALPIN: Nice to see you.

CAVANAUGH: And John Wilson. Executive director of the Timken museum of art. Hi John.

WILSON: Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Hugh, this is as I said the first ever collaborative exhibit by the San Diego museum of art, the Timken museum of art, the museum of contemporary art, San Diego. Your you pulling out all the stops for this show?

DAVIES: Well, for many year, we were friendly competitors, like high school football teams in a city. And seven years ago, John Peterson invited me and Dana Cartwright to a Padres game. And as we talked, we mused about the fact that the combined collections of these three museums were the equal of many other cities of comparable size or even larger in other parts of the country. And how could we get that message across to our fellow San Diegans and in fact to the country? And the idea of doing a combined exhibition or really three exhibitions in our three locations emphasizing the strength of our combined collections. And we very rapidly decided that American art was the way to go because none of the museums individually could show that story in its range and narrative as effectively as we could by combining our collections.

CAVANAUGH: How many American works are going to be in this combined show and and what time span of the works is involved?

GALPIN: The exhibition includes 175 of works of art by 144 different artists. And they're spread throughout the three museums by the three interrelated concepts of forms, figures, and frontiers.

CAVANAUGH: And the earliest piece comes from?

GALPIN: 1761, a piece in the collection of the San Diego museum of art.

CAVANAUGH: And it spans to?

GALPIN: 2009.

CAVANAUGH: All right, pretty up-to-date! Now, John Wilson, a lot of people I guess have pondered this particular question, but I'm going to ask anyway. What makes American art unique?

WILSON: That's a very good question. And since we have such a short period of time, it's about the same length of time you get in a standard survey of art history class to discuss it. What's unique about the United States and the art of the United States is that it was from really well into the history of art, sort of the 18th century, it emerged as a sort of land of innocence and savagery, freedom and unlimited possibilities. And you had from the earliest age when -- especially when landscape painters came to the United States, a desire to really portray the American continent as a -- sort of a blank slate in one way or another. And that actually took over as -- into narrative subjects, genre, and figurative works too. But it really for the most part, for much of the history of the United States, we are a very good but still provincial art school. And it really isn't until the end of World War II that we really break away and become the unquestioned leader of the art world going on.

CAVANAUGH: Right. When people think about the history of art, not American art but art, they will come up with Monet, Picasso. Not a lot of American artists. Why don't they come to mind first?

GALPIN: Well, I think that American art is still a field in which we are developing our scholarship, our ideas about, are. It's still a real fertile ground for research, serious research, and I think one of the most amazing things is in the last decade or so, we're seeing a huge boom from abroad. Scholars in Europe looking at American art, scholars in Latin America looking at American art. And I think that the next decade or so, we're going to continue to see an interest in American art. For example the crystal Bridges museum just opened in bettanville Arkansas. The met, the MMFA in Boston have reinstalled their American art. So we are part of a growing interest in revisiting the ingenuity, and the dynamic ways in which American artists have contributed to not only the history of art in this country but the history of art more broadly.

CAVANAUGH: So American art in and of itself is going through something of a revival process. Here in San Diego, we are showcasing not only our collections of American art but our museums in this city. Now, San Diego is known for performing arts. A lot of shows originate here and they go onto Broadway. We're a hub for that kind of creativity. We don't necessarily have the same kind of reputation when it comes to visual art. Why is that?

DAVIES: Well, we're all justifiably proud that we have extraordinary theatre in this town with The Old Globe, the rep, and the La Jolla Playhouse. And to a certain extent, museums have kept their light under a bushel. We do all the museums create exhibitions and travel them. We've sent exhibitions to the Whitney and the MFA in Houston, as has the San Diego museum sent an Indian show to the piece and collection in Spain. We just have not had as much recognition. The other factor is that museums are cumulative enterprises. So over the years as we add works to our collections, we strengthen those collections. And we've reached a point with museums in this city, not just the three in this collaboration, but with the Mingei museum, and the museum of photographic arts, we have critical mass. Our museums are now mature. There's much more reason to come and visit museums in San Diego today than 25 years ago. Of

CAVANAUGH: That's really interesting. I hadn't heard it put that way before. We're ready to invite the world in is what you're saying. Amy, you mentioned that what we have, you divided this rather large collection of paintings into figures, forms and --

GALPIN: Frontiers.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about that, and how you decided which museum was going to be featuring which of those concepts.

GALPIN: As the check list began to grow for the exhibition, it was quite easy to get to 100 are works of art. These three institutions have great examples of American art that would be appropriate for any survey in any city. And once we got to about 100, as I looked through the check list and thought about how we will divide this show, there was a very natural delineation of forms, figures, and frontiers. Frontiers being 19th century landscapes, but also looking at the human landscape, the sense of the unknown.

CAVANAUGH: Pushing boundaries.

GALPIN: Exactly. And figures, portraits, and the way in which human anatomy or the figure has played a role in making history. And in terms of forms, thinking of still lives, and through great examples of minimalism and beyond, it seemed an easy fit. I couldn't resist the idea of frontiers being at the museum of contemporary art in La Jolla. The beautiful museum that literally sits on a cliff overlooking a frontier, the Pacific ocean. But also I felt that theme was really broad, and as you said, pushing boundaries with frontiers, isn't that what a contemporary art museum does? At the San Diego museum of art, we have a great collection of portraiture, by Diego Rivera, Goya, Georgiany, so it seemed like a great fit for us to have American portraiture in conversation with other areas of our collection. Lastly, I couldn't resist the idea with the Timken museum, the architecture itself being a type of minimalist box that opened in 1965 in Balboa Park, giving it up the art that matched its facade. In the case of Agnus Martin or Joe bear.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that is a very different view of the Timken museum of art, which is celebrated for its European art, its very old art. And now you're having this minimalist collection being hung in the Timken. What's that like for you?

WILSON: It's utterly fantastic. And one of the things that we decided to do for this exhibit job is to put our share of it in 1/2 of the museum. Usually we put it into our small, contemporary exhibition gallery of about 600 square feet. Now we're using about 2,500 square feet. And the entire permanent collection has been reinstalled on one side of the museum. And as you walk into the gallery and turn left and go into the America show, I tried to install it in a way that you would see jarring juxtapositions. You see three stained wads of canvas by Sam Gilliam hanging from the ceiling. And you see a large drawing, a papers me, a minimalist painting by Joe bear. Things that you will have never -- could have imagined seeing at the Timken.


WILSON: And I wanted that shocking juxtaposition. When you're expecting to see a Boucher, and you see a Sam Gilliam.

CAVANAUGH: That'll wake you up! What would you say makes this entire exhibit unique?

DAVIES: Well, it's the collaboration of three institutions, and having the full range of American art. It's 238 years between the earliest piece and the most recently made piece. So for our audiences, they are shocked to find gold frames and historic landscapes. But it's a jarring, positively jarring experience. The way John describes it, the Timken, it's great for our audiences to see contemporary art in the context of the history of American art. So this is a wonderful confrontation between Eastman Johnson's the cranberries pickers, and right next to this is a diorama of seagulls and coyotes and rats rummaging around a garbage dump. So these two views of the optimism of the 19th century and the idyllic scene versus the realism of leaky oil cans and rotting food in a dump is a conversation that needs to be had. And it's happening in the galleries.

CAVANAUGH: And both an example of an American take, an American view, an American point of view when it comes to art. Amy, I know that you have sort of poured your heart and soul into this for years now. What are you taking pride in now that it's all hung and ready to go? Where are your points that you say, well, that's really the way I wanted that?

GALPIN: I'm really proud that while the exhibition has great works that could be in any survey anywhere, like an Ellsworth Kelly painting, or gorgia O'Keefe, what I'm also proud is of the distinctively San Diego voice that's present in the show, whether it be professors associated with UCSD, artists who've moved back and across the U.S./Mexico border, and the donors from our community who have given art to these institutions, the donors from our community who have given funds to these institutions to buy these works. And we're so lucky to have support for this project, for example in the form of Qualcomm who is the lead supporter of the exhibition.

CAVANAUGH: Behold America, art of the United States from three San Diego museums runs now through February 10th, at the museum of contemporary art, San Diego, in La Jolla, the San Diego museum of art, and the Timken in Balboa Park. Thank you all very much.

DAVIES: Thank you, Maureen.

WILSON: Thank you, Maureen, my pleasure.