“Facing Out, Facing In: Figurative Works from the Michener Art Museum Collection,” on view January 15 to May 1 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in the Fred Beans Gallery, offers both a window on the world and a journey into the inner life of artist and subject. The human drama is among the themes explored in this participatory exhibit, where viewers are invited to reflect on the artists’ intentions and even place votes into ballot boxes.
The phrase “Twentieth Century art” often brings to mind Jackson Pollock dripping paint on a blank canvas with unconscious fervor, or Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which one critic referred to as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” History often remembers the innovators and pioneers, and when the tale of Twentieth Century art is told, it usually focuses on the rebellion against “objective” art: art that “looks real.”
While the abstract painters tend to get the headlines, there were many artists who quietly explored the human figure as the primary source of inspiration and expression in their work. Many of these figurative artists loved the ancient art of portraiture, which looks beneath the surface to the core of individuality and tries to capture that elusive quality that makes each person unique.
Other artists were gifted storytellers who used their work to comment on both the comedy and tragedy of life, as well as celebrate the experiences that define culture and nation. Some figurative artists faced inward, toward the personal and the intimate; others faced outward, toward the grand dramas of war and politics, as well as the revealing moments that often go unobserved, that sometimes say more about the experience of being alive than a battle or a parade.
Drawing on the Michener’s extensive holdings of figurative art, especially in paintings and photographs, the exhibition explores this temperamental and stylistic dichotomy in figurative art, and includes work by such well-known regional painters as Louis Bosa, Daniel Garber and BJO Nordfeldt; photographers Emmet Gowin, Edmund Eckstein, David Graham, Andrea Baldeck and Susan Bank; as well as works on paper by Werner Drewes and William A. Smith.
Also featured are selections from the collection of John Horton, a recent bequest to the Michener that contains important Depression-era canvases by painters William Schwartz, Guy Pène duBois, Julius Bloch and Ben Shahn.
The James A. Michener Art Museum is at 138 South Pine Street. For information, www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215-340-9800.