Monday, February 17, 2014

PMA/Fine Lines: American Drawing from the Brooklyn Museum

Winslow Homer, Study for "The Unruly Calf" ca.1875

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: Karen A. Sherry, Chief Curator and Curator of American Art, Portland Museum of Art

From the Press Release: "Fine Lines showcases drawing as a dynamic art form in the United States across two centuries."

This exhibition opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the late spring of 2013. A New York Times review of that installation can be found here.

Recommended For: a behind-the-frame glimpse of the making of American art history.

The Experience:
OK, unlike Worcester or Lowell, which are deceptively close to Boston, Portland is legitimately something of a hike to get to from the Hub. But worth it. The Portland Museum of Art is a terrific destination and downtown Portland is a super place to eat. So, plan for the day and you won't be sorry.

Fine Lines, is a modestly-sized exhibition tastefully installed in the changing exhibition galleries of PMA just off the lobby. The show is thoughtfully organized by curator Karen Sherry into sections according to compositional subject- the portraits are together, the anatomical studies, the narrative works, the landscapes, etc. This organization allows the visitor to appreciate the wide range of techniques and modes of representation utilized by a impressive range of American artists. The artists of the drawings shown- and there's over 70 different artists represented- reads like a veritable who's who of American art history. This is a real tribute to the depth and importance of the Brooklyn Museum's holdings. I will say that it helps to view Fine Lines with a familiarity with the finished works of the artists included. In some cases, an example or thumbnail of the finished works is provided, but often it is left to the viewer's own knowledge.

It was the varied functions of the drawings that intrigued me.  Some were studies for later works finished in another medium such as painting or print. Others were part of the artistic training of the artists, studies of human form and landscape studies and suchlike. Still others, like some of the travel sketchbooks, were merely of subjects that caught the artists' eye. Studying the catalog (which is fantastic) after the show, I couldn't help but wonder if the function of the sketches, rather than their subject matter, couldn't have provided a compelling alternate organization for the show.

That aside, there are some truly exceptional pieces in the show that stopped me in my tracks with their arresting immediacy and the powerful insight into the artist's mind they provided: Robert Henri's Nude Perched on Chair, Bradley Walker Tomlin's Back, Minerva Josephine Chapman's Woman in Profile and Charles Caryl Coleman's A Shower of Ashes upon Ottavaino. My favorite two sketches in the show were Benjamin Orso Eggleston's Little Girl Holding an Apple and Albert Bierstadt's Study of a Ewe.

Drawing happens to be one of my favorite media, and it was a real treat to see such a sweeping collection of examples on view. Portland may be a bit of a drive, but Fine Lines will make you glad you went.

Benjamin Orso Eggleston, Little Girl Holding an Apple, 1927

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