Belatedness and North American Art

Belatedness and U.S. Exhibitions in Transnational Contexts

How has the display of U.S. art in transnational contexts built or rejected ideas of American culture as belated? How do exhibitions outside the United States construct cultural arguments, from John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West in eighteenth-century London to interwar and post-World War II exhibitions on the history of U.S. art? How did Copley’s transnational performance shape attempts by John Trumbull and Thomas Sully to circulate exhibitions of art related to U.S. revolutionary history? How did the international circulation of paintings in exhibitions like “Three Centuries of American Art” (1938), “Advancing American Art” (1946-57), “The New American Painting” (1958-59), and the second documenta in 1959 capitalize on ambiguous claims of art’s ‘coming of age’ in these decades? What is the role of art criticism in reinforcing ever dynamic ideas of culture?

Organised by Professor Emily C. Burns (Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma) and Professor David Peters Corbett (Professor of American Art and Director of the Centre for American Art, The Courtauld) as part of the ‘Belatedness and North American Art’ series.


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24 Feb 2023

Friday 24th February 2023, 6pm - 8pm GMT

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Minding the Gap: John Singleton Copley’s Provincialism, Belatedness, and the Paradox of Colonial Self-Fashioning

Emily Ballew Neff, The Kelso Director, San Antonio Museum of Art

How does provincialism relate to belatedness? Colonial artist John Singleton Copley performed belatedness through persistent claims of colonial naiveté, which proved remarkably astute in terms of positioning himself in a broader transatlantic artistic network before he left colonial Boston in 1774. Once settled in London in 1775, the repetition of geo-temporal themes as evidenced in his work, his letters, and novel exhibition strategies, both helped and worked against him and, to some degree, his friend and eventual adversary, Benjamin West. While both artists used their colonial status to advance their careers, ultimately stunning the artistic world with contemporary history painting in the Grand Manner, Copley’s development of the genre, so closely tied to modernity—news media, celebrity, political rhetoric, transatlantic exchange and empire building—threw into question its relevance as changing global events inevitably altered its meanings. In retrospect, moving from belatedness to strategic foresight (or being “early”) was not just the expression of a remarkable career trajectory in the case of Copley. In the historiography of North American art, belatedness and provincialism evolved into positive affirmations of “American” identity.

Emily Ballew Neff is the Kelso Director at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The author or co-author of six catalogues and a contributor of essays to numerous others, she has created 25 exhibitions, including major presentations such as American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World (2013) and John Singleton Copley in England (1995) and, in the area of western studies, The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950 (2006), the latter two of which illustrate her interest in a broad range of media and dialogue with indigenous arts. Throughout her career, beginning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she was the inaugural curator of American Painting and Sculpture, she has been guided by an interest in situating American art in a more expansive, global context and nurturing interest across diverse cultures and geographies.

Painting depicting a group of men in a boat, some trying to pull a naked figure to safety while others fight off a shark with spears.
John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, 182.1 x 229.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

Timing and History in Trumbull and Sully’s Early American Single Painting Exhibitions

Tanya Pohrt, Curator, Lyman Allen Art Museum

In 1818–1819 John Trumbull exhibited his large-scale Declaration of Independence in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. It was the first multi-city exhibition of a history painting in America, a format modelled after John Singleton Copley’s successful independent exhibitions in London in the 1780s. America was far different than London, however, and Trumbull’s Revolutionary project took nearly four decades to come to fruition. Because of this, his Declaration reflected a version of history that was out of sync by 1818-1819, leading viewers to question who was included and excluded from this symbolically important moment in the nation’s history.

A resurgence of interest in the American Revolution followed the war of 1812, facilitating Trumbull’s federal commission and motivating other artists such as Thomas Sully to paint canvases celebrating the nation’s founding. By adapting British exhibition strategies to fit the needs of American artists and audiences, Trumbull and Sully created ambitious yet flawed history paintings for the public. Belatedness explains many of their problems, yet the paintings’ inaccuracies also reflect the difficulty of history painting as a genre. By attempting to pin down iconic events in a nation’s contested and fractured history, artists opened themselves up to critique.

Tanya Pohrt is curator of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut. She has curated a range of exhibitions at the Lyman Allyn, including The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic (Exh. Cat., 2021), The Prismatic Palette: Frank Vincent DuMond and His Students, 2021, and curated the permanent collection gallery Louis Comfort Tiffany in New London, which opened in 2018. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Delaware with a specialty in American art and was previously a Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Painting depicting the signing of the United State's Declaration of Independence
John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1786-1820, oil on canvas, 53 x 78.7 cm, Trumbull Collection, Yale University Art Gallery, 1832.3

American Cultural ‘Innocence’ as Political Tool in 1930s France

Caroline M. Riley, Research Associate, Department of Art and Art History, University of California, Davis

In 1938, MoMA curators installed the museum’s first international exhibition, Three Centuries of American Art, in Paris. With Three Centuries, MoMA laid out an authoritative vision of American art history that extended its chronology to the early colonial period and encompassed countries far beyond the geographical borders of the United States. The exhibition contained over 750 artworks as well as interpretive documents, including film scripts and maps, dating from 1609 to 1938. Three Centuries operated as a representational proxy for the United States that promoted both its cultural exceptionalism in the display, for example, of folk art, including art by Black artists, and its industrial strength in the display, for example, of Chicago skyscrapers. On the cusp of World War II, how did the perception of American cultural belatedness in an exhibition of American art history benefit the French? Alternatively, how did the display of American industrialization serve as a powerful counter-narrative that shifted American and French perceptions of each other? Complicating our notion of belatedness, Three Centuries was the first collaboration between MoMA and the US government, and officials saw in it the potential to represent American democratic values as totalitarianism advanced in the 1930s.

Caroline Riley serves as Research Associate at the University of California, Davis and a NEH Long-Term Fellow at the New York Public Library (2022–2023). She has published on Pictorialist photography, nineteenth-century portrait painters, and vernacular art. Her first book, MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938 (University of California Press, January 2023), explores American art’s canonization during the interwar period and the deployment of art in international diplomacy. Her next book, presently titled Thérèse Bonney and the Global Syndication of Photography, will analyse how Bonney’s trail-blazing life impacted the progress of women in the male-dominated professions of photographer, journalist, spy, business owner, and curator.

Painted portrait of a young girl in a tudor style white and orange dress, with a closed fan in one hand.
Freake-Gibbs Limner, Margaret Gibbs, 1670, oil on canvas, 102.87 x 84.14 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Elsie Q. Giltinan (1995.800).

The second half of the event will be moderated by Angela Miller.

Angela Miller is Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis. She is author of Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875; and lead author, along with Janet Berlo, Bryan Wolf, and Jennifer Roberts, of American Encounters: Cultural Identity and the Visual Arts from the Beginning to the Present (Pearson, 2008). She has published widely on 19th and 20th century visual arts and culture. Along with Sabine Eckmann, she is planning an exhibition on post-war abstraction in the US, France, and Germany that sets Abstract Expressionism within a network of international exchange.

The Long Struggle: Belatedness and International Exhibitions of American Art, 1946-1959

Mark A. White, Executive Director, New Mexico Museum of Art

As the United States asserted its influence abroad following World War II, institutions as varied as the U.S. State Department, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) followed a similar path by creating exhibitions of contemporary American art for foreign audiences. Traveling exhibitions such as the State Department’s Advancing American Art (1946-47) and MoMA’s The New American Painting (1958-59) declared the legitimacy of American modernism, which had been perceived as late to the party. Organizers of the respective exhibitions asserted that contemporary American art deserved serious consideration, having been relatively ignored on an international stage in the past. This talk will explore how these exhibitions situated contemporary American art within an international context, whether to suggest American artists had finally come of age or had triumphed over their foreign rivals.

Mark Andrew White is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Museum of Art. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1999 and spent the first decade of his career in academia at Oklahoma State University. In 2009, he joined the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma as curator and, in 2015, was named the Wylodean and Bill Saxon Director of the museum.

Exhibitions and publications include OK/LA (2020), Macrocosm/Microcosm: Abstract Expressionism in the American Southwest (2014), and Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy (2012).

Painting showing a figure in a red hat standing next to some tall, green grass, looking at a lamp post against a red wall
Ben Shahn, Renascence, 1946, gouache on whatman hot pressed board, 55.5 x 76.2 cm, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma; Purchase, U.S. State Department Collection, War Assets Administration, 1948

Global Modernism, US Imperialism, and the Paradoxes of Decolonization

Joshua I. Cohen, Associate Professor of Art History, The City College of New York

In his classic study of Abstract Expressionism around the start of the Cold War, Serge Guilbaut (1983) noted that American art before the mid-1940s had “trailed behind French production.” Yet by the end of the decade, the United States, in terms of global cultural influence, made a “transition from colonized nation to colonizer.” For a country of epigones to become an avant-garde powerhouse, a major geographical reorientation was needed, in Guilbaut’s thesis, shifting the art world’s so-called centre from Paris to New York. Less commonly noted in postcolonial and Cold War scholarship is a revised temporal postwar schema, which was crucial for positioning the US on the cutting edge of global artistic trends and purportedly in synch with liberated Third World modernists. This paper comparatively examines landmark exhibitions of American art and US-sponsored exhibitions of artists from different parts of the decolonizing world, focusing on the late 1940s through the early 1960s. It analyzes how, paradoxically, American advocacy for the end of colonialism seeded and supported new forms of capitalist imperialism, posing a new set of challenges for modernist painters from ex-colonies.

Joshua I. Cohen is associate professor of art history at The City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. His first book, The “Black Art” Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents (University of California Press, 2020), received honorable mention for the Modernist Studies Association First Book Prize. He is at work on a new book project entitled Art of the Opaque: African Modernism, Decolonization, and the Cold War.

‘Documenta? An American assault on Europe!’ Gesture Painting and the Failures of Transatlanticism at documenta II (1959)

Dr Matthew Holman, The Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow, The Courtauld

‘Art has become abstract’, wrote Werner Haftmann in 1959 and, in so doing, became ‘the first example of world culture.’ The transatlanticist Haftmann, perhaps the most vociferous supporter of modern art in post-war Germany, believed that a ‘world language’ of gestural abstraction had become a reality. This philosophical and formal attitude to art informed Haftmann’s vision for documenta II, held in the small West German city of Kassel, which he co-curated with Arnold Bode. However, just as a buoyant internationalism looked to celebrate the arrival of a ‘lingua franca’ in post-war art, the political and transnational power asymmetries in an art-world increasingly dominated by Abstract Expressionism, supported by the deep-pockets of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, exposed the fault-lines in Haftmann’s worldview. By focusing on the controversial American representation at documenta II, in which an overdetermined display of works was hung one on top of another in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hang, this paper will use this exhibition as a case study to interrogate wider questions about Cold War cultural politics. I will argue that Abstract Expressionism––as the flagship style of American modernism––‘came of age’ at the same moment when confidence in a genuinely international mode of gestural abstraction was on the wane. If gestural abstraction offered, for some Mittel-European critics, an artistic manifestation of the North Atlantic alliance, then for others it showed a decadent American art form which was already beginning to be eclipsed by formal critiques of gesture painting in Neo-Dada and Pop, as examples of both lurked in the background of documenta II and threatened the story of art that it advocated by the end of the 1950s.

Dr Matthew Holman is The Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow at The Courtauld. In 2020, he completed a PhD in post-war exhibition histories of American art at University College London, where he stayed on and taught modern poetry. Matthew has held research fellowships at Yale University, The Smithsonian, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and spent a year at The John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin under a Leverhulme Trust Studentship. His research has been published or is forthcoming in Critical Quarterly, Women’s Studies, The Oxford Art Journal, Essays and Studies, Modern Italian Art, and elsewhere. His first book, Curating Modern Life: Frank O’Hara and the Politics of Art, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury in spring 2024

Photograph showing abstract artworks by Jackson Pollock in black and white hung in a white box gallery with benches throughout the room
Installation view of Museum Fridericianum with paintings by Jackson Pollock documenta II (1959) Kassel Germany. DCA-005-18.001-d02.026 © documenta archiv / Foto: Günther Becker
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Belatedness and U.S. Exhibitions in Transnational Contexts