“Poet of the Darkroom”: Celebrating Man Ray

Remember that classic Sesame Street skit “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others”? Well, we’ll forgive you if you felt like singing that familiar tune when looking at the Modern Art in America stamp sheet.

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Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Art © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Art © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Art © Man Ray Trust/ARS/ADAGP 2012. Art © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp. Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930 © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Art © 2011 Estate of John Marin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Art © The Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

The only photograph on this would-be art gallery wall comes from Man Ray, who was born on this day in 1890. A versatile artist associated with some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century, Man Ray is generally agreed to have made his most valuable contribution as a photographer. Writer Jean Cocteau even called him “the great poet of the darkroom.”

In the 1920s, Man Ray made several iconic photographs of his companion at the time, a woman known as Kiki de Montparnasse, a nightclub performer and favorite model and muse to a number of avant-garde artists. She posed for his well-known photograph Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), with a violin’s curlicue “f”-holes on her otherwise naked back.

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Art © Man Ray Trust/ARS/ADAGP 2012

Noire et Blanche (1926), used in the Modern Art in America stamp art, is from a series of photographs juxtaposing Kiki’s face with a Baule mask from West Africa (or a replica). Like other artists of his time, Man Ray turned to African artifacts partly from a sense that art had exhausted its possibilities in the industrialized West.

The Modern Art in America stamp sheet, which was released on March 7, is currently available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and in Post Offices nationwide.

Happy birthday Arthur Dove!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Arthur Dove (1880–1946), one of modern art’s earliest abstract painters and probably the first American artist to paint a totally abstract canvas.

Over the course of his career, Dove worked in a variety of media, including pastel, watercolor, and collage. He also created assemblages. Goin’ Fishin’ (1925), for example, includes bits of bamboo, denim, and other materials.

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Arthur Dove’s attempt to render sounds as colors and shapes makes his 1929 painting “Fog Horns” descriptive and abstract at the same time. Art © The Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

Between 1920 and 1933, Dove lived on a houseboat moored off Manhattan and then on a yawl that cruised Long Island Sound and moored in its harbors during the winter. Fog Horns (1929), the oil painting reproduced on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet, suggests the peal of foghorns at sea. Dove was interested in synesthesia, the phenomenon of stimulating one sense by means of another, and attempted to portray sound in this work. The painting’s gray background suggests the ocean without depicting it in realistic terms, while concentric rings of paint grow progressively lighter as they emanate outward from the center, conjuring foghorns blaring in the mist.

The Modern Art in America stamp sheet, which was released on March 7, is currently available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and in Post Offices nationwide.

Modern Art In America: A Q + A With Montclair Art Museum Curator Gail Stavitsky

FDC Full Sheet

Four bull’s-eye postmarks and one standard four-bar cancellation are applied in four quadrants to strike all 12 stamps in this Modern Art in America 1913-1931 cancelled stamp sheet. Click the image for details.

The 2013 Modern Art in America Forever® stamps, issued 100 years after the Armory Show opened in New York, truly capture the spirit of that groundbreaking event. The Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, just wrapped up an exhibition called “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913.” We recently caught up with Gail Stavitsky, the museum’s chief curator, who graciously answered some of our questions. Here’s a slightly condensed version of our conversation:

Why was the Armory Show so significant?

The original Armory Show was really a landmark exhibition because it was the first large-scale exhibition of modern art in America. It really introduced major artists like Matisse, Picasso . . . and others on a large scale to American audiences. Because before then, you really could’ve only seen a few shows in a very small gallery run in New York City by Alfred Stieglitz on a fourth floor walk-up at 291 Fifth Avenue. There just wasn’t much that you could see, and so [the Armory Show] was the first opportunity to see modern art on a large scale. And of course not only European art, but American art as well, which comprised of two-thirds of the show.

And the other really major importance is that the whole modern art market opened up as a result of the Armory Show. It was after that time that major collections were formed and there was a whole new group of galleries that were founded after the Armory Show. And ultimately, for example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, when it was founded in 1929, it was really an outgrowth of the Armory Show.

What was your goal in developing the “New Spirit” exhibition?

We felt that the best way to celebrate the centennial of this really important event was to try to look at it in a new way, and to focus on the American art. That is very much the mission of the Montclair Art Museum, to engage in new scholarship and new points of view about American art. And we were aware of the fact that American art actually comprised two-thirds of the works of art on view, of which was over 1,200 works. And the show was organized by American artists, and yet the emphasis is so much on European MarcelDuchamp-Forever-single-BGv1art. Not only Matisse and Picasso, but also Marcel Duchamp—[his] painting, the Nude Descending a Staircase, was considered the big scandal at the Armory Show. And so that’s what people kind of think about when they think about the Armory Show. They don’t really think about Edward Hopper and Robert Henri and Stuart Davis and the many American artists, some who are well-known today, and a lot who are unfortunately forgotten and who deserve to be better-known. So we really wanted to also revive the reputation of artists like E. Ambrose Webster from Boston, who most people have never heard of before, and say, “here’s a really important progressive artist at the time and deserves our attention now.”

How did you go about finding some of the primary documents associated with the Armory Show (letters, floor plans, sales records)?

We were very fortunate to have an important collaborator in the Archives of American Art, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And they’re really the major repository for any papers that pertain to the Armory Show. They’re the ones with the key documents and the original records, a lot of which are part of the papers of an artist named Walt Kuhn. And there are also papers from another organizer Walter Pach. They have a variety of papers and records there. And so what we did, we worked with them. They have an entire gallery in the show that is devoted to these precious records that they lent to our museum. So I really want to emphasize the importance of their role.

What’s your favorite aspect of the exhibit?

I particularly enjoy the way that we were able to install and present the works, because we wanted to recreate, give kind of a feeling of how the original show was installed. So, we purchased artificial greenery to try to give a sense of the original swags of greenery that were part of the interior decoration of the Armory Show.

And it was a lot of fun being able to present works by both well-known artists and lesser-known Americans in that context and to present such a variety of work, because the work really ranges from realism and impressionism to abstract art by a not-very-well-known artist named Manierre Dawson, who was one of the first abstract artists in the world. [He was] an artist who lived in Chicago and who had his work on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was the second stop on the tour of the Armory Show.

The European artists featured at the Armory Show tend to be associated with it, but there were lots of great American works there, too. Why do you think the American artists involved weren’t treated with as much reverence?

I think the reason really has to do with what I guess I would call myth and misconception about the Armory Show that were perpetuated, interestingly enough, by some of the artists themselves initially. And then, especially by the succeeding generation of critics and art historians, which have kind of tended to say the American art is boring and provincial in comparison to the European art, which is more avant-garde. . . . 

There was kind of this myth that the Americans didn’t much attention in the newspapers, and that the American artists felt inferior, and felt that their work wasn’t as exciting. Some of that was because artists like Jerome Meyers, who wrote a book in the 1940s saying that European artists really stole our thunder. So I think some of those attitudes were kind of picked up by other critics and writers and historians in later years and so what we did is we really went back to the original newspaper clippings and reviews. And you know what? Actually, quite a bit of attention was paid to American art. And a lot of it was very positive at the time of the show. I guess somehow it’s been forgotten. That was another part of our mission, to talk about the critical reception and how American artists were seen as progressive.

The Modern Art in America stamp sheet was released on March 7, 2013. It is currently available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and in Post Offices nationwide.

Made in America: Celebrating Charles Sheeler’s “American Landscape”

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Top row (l-r): airplane maker, derrick man on the Empire State Building, millinery apprentice, man on a hoisting ball on the Empire State Building. Middle row (l-r): linotyper in a publishing house, welder on the Empire State Building, coal miner, riveters on the Empire State Building. Bottom row (l-r): powerhouse mechanic, railroad track walker, textile worker, man guiding a beam on the Empire State Building.

We’ve been reminding folks this week about the upcoming release of the Made in America: Building A Nation stamps. Each pane of stamps showcases 12 images of early 20th-century industrial workers, whose contributions were essential to the growth of the modern United States.

Artist Charles Sheeler, who happens to have been born on this day in 1883, was just as fascinated by the growth of American industry in the early 20th century as we are. His photographs and paintings, many rendered in a flat, hard-edged style known as Precisionism, reflect his interest in technology and streamlined architecture.

During the 1920s, commercial photography provided Sheeler with a good living. In 1927, he received a commission to photograph the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan, a few miles west of Detroit. Those photographs became successful as both advertising and fine art.

No cars appear in the images. Instead, Sheeler concentrated on the power of the machines and the architecture of the industrial plant, emphasizing the impersonal grandeur of the enterprise. He went on to present this idealized view of industry in several paintings, including American Landscape (1930), that celebrate the company’s—and the nation’s—strength and productivity.

CharlesSheeler-Forever-single-v3By calling his painting American Landscape, Sheeler explored the relationship between rural traditions and his modern subject matter. He presents an industrial world as the equivalent of the natural world. Even the water in this landscape is a man-made canal. To emphasize the modern quality of his vision, Sheeler worked to eliminate signs of brushwork from his painting. The tiny human figure on the railroad track in the lower left quadrant indicates the scale of the enormous smokestack and other industrial apparatus. Sheeler is commenting on the way human culture was coming to dominate nature. Painted at the height of the “machine age,” Sheeler’s painting celebrates the order and rationality of industry.

DCP Keepsake

This collectible package includes a sheet of 12 Modern Art in America Forever® stamps and a set of 12 Digital Color Postmark First Day Covers. Click the image for details.

In 1939, Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to make a series of paintings on the theme of power. He visited marvels of modern engineering such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Boulder Dam. The resulting paintings were reproduced in the magazine and exhibited in New York.

Late in his career, he made a series of paintings of abandoned mill buildings, reflecting his longstanding interest in architecture. Some of his interiors depict both antique furniture and modern appliances, joining the handmade past and the industrial present.

The Charles Sheeler stamp can be found on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet, which was issued on March 7, 2013. The sheet is available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and at Post Offices around the country. The Made in America stamps will be issued on Thursday, August 8. We will post more details about the official dedication ceremony soon.

Happy Birthday to America’s First Futurist Painter, Joseph Stella!

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Joseph Stella’s oil-on-canvas painting, “Brooklyn Bridge” (1919–1920), measures 84 x 76 inches and is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Today we’re celebrating the art of Joseph Stella, who was born on this day in 1877. Stella’s large 1920 oil painting, Brooklyn Bridge, is one of 12 works featured on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet released in March.

Look closely at the image on the stamp. It depicts the familiar pointed arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, but perhaps you also see the lines of a Gothic cathedral. If so, that’s exactly what Stella intended. The painting was inspired by his experience standing late one night on the bridge’s promenade. “I felt deeply moved,” he later wrote, “as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new divinity.” Rather than a faithful representation of the New York landmark, Stella’s portrait of the Brooklyn Bridge suggests the possibility for spiritual transcendence in the modern world. Can you think of other paintings or works of art that do the same thing?

Although Joseph Stella is best remembered for his multiple images of the Brooklyn Bridge and other iconic New York scenes, he was a versatile artist who worked in a variety of styles—including Dada, realism, and symbolism—and the full range of his talent is now widely recognized.

Stella was born in Italy and came to the United States in 1896. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1923.) Early in his career he worked as an illustrator for various magazines and won wide acclaim for a series of drawings of coal miners and steel mill workers. Later, impressed by the art of the Italian Futurists, he painted Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–1914), which is considered the first American Futurist painting. (Responding to the speed of modern society, the Futurists attempted to portray the rush of sights and sounds that characterized modern life.) Two of his works were exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show, a watershed for the development of modern art in America.

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You can find the Joseph Stella Forever® stamp on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet, which is available now online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and in Post Offices around the country. (Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail® one-ounce rate.)

Have a favorite Joseph Stella painting? Tell us about it in the comments.