American Art at the SBMA

Highlights and Small-Format Paintings in Two New Shows

With the grand reopening of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art just two months away, there’s still plenty of reasons to visit the museum now, even before the unveiling of the new galleries. Two smaller exhibitions of American art that are currently on view demonstrate the depth of the museum’s holdings and the talent of the curatorial staff in selecting and displaying the work in ways that are deeply satisfying and thought-provoking. 

Credit: Courtesy

“Small-Format American Paintings” draws on the museum’s Preston Morton Collection for a stellar group of works each rendered on a canvas less than 15 inches in diameter. What’s striking here, beyond the remarkable variety of genres, is the degree to which major artists express their distinctive genius in a small compass. The edgy, middle-distance stare of the figure in Thomas Eakins’s “Portrait of Master Douty” from 1906 provides a powerful charge of modern energy, and the Frederic Edwin Church sunset landscape once owned by Lockwood de Forest reveals an unexpected kinship between Church’s Hudson River grandeur and de Forest’s Zen-like transcendentalism. 

The simple title “Highlights of American Art” does scant justice to the ambitious survey of works from 1900-1950 that currently occupies the Preston Morton Gallery. SBMA Deputy Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng has executed a tour de force of arrangement, juxtaposition, and labeling that manages to represent the major creative lineage of American art in this period while simultaneously challenging that narrative with outstanding work by previously neglected or otherwise marginalized figures. The Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé’s “Head of a Boy” makes an indelible impression at the entrance to the show, as do large paintings by Kay Sage and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. In the context of major paintings by Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, Robert Henri, Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley, these works initiate a conversation that will leave anyone with an interest in American art wiser and more aware of the richness and complexity of art in the first half of the 20th century. 

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