Utah art lovers get a chance, starting this weekend at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, to view four paintings that are considered masterpieces — which begs the question: What is a masterpiece?
It’s a question curators constantly wrestle with, said Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is loaning three of the works to UMFA for display from now to Oct. 4, 2020.
“There are so many impressive artists, and yet what is it that sets one artist apart from another?” Stebich said. “Or if you really know an artist’s work in depth, where are those works that are breakthroughs? Where are they taking us in a new direction? Where are they speaking to us in a way that we have not been spoken to before?”
UMFA is one of five museums in the western United States borrowing paintings from the Smithsonian, under a program meant to move parts of the massive collection out of Washington, D.C., for short exhibitions. The program is backed by a $2 million grant by two foundations, Art Bridges and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
In addition to the loans from the Smithsonian, UMFA is also borrowing a fourth work — by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera — from Art Bridges, the foundation led by Alice Walton, an heir to the WalMart fortune.
The three Smithsonian paintings are landscapes, but with a difference: Each is taller than it is wide, a departure from traditional horizontal landscapes.
“These artists are challenging us to think differently,” Stebich said. “What you get so beautifully with the vertical is, you get an uplift.”
Here’s what Stebich and Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA’s executive director, had to say about the four works on display:
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Manhattan” (1932) • Before she created her famous desert paintings, O’Keeffe moved to New York City, where she met and married the gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
“Where do they live in New York? They actually live in a high rise,” Stebich said. “Even if she had never gone to New Mexico, she would be known for her New York pictures.”
In this 1932 work, O’Keeffe is drawn to “manmade landscapes, these verticals that were skyscrapers. And yet, she adds these touches — I’m going to call them roses. And there’s a subtle red, white and blue composition. … She’s picking up a language from Europe. She’s picking up cubism … but we can still read it.”
Then there’s the sheer size of the thing: A hair over 7 feet tall, and just over 4 feet wide. “It dwarfs us in its boldness,” Stebich said. “This artist is making a statement.”
Dietrich noted that UMFA convinced an anonymous Utah art collector to loan three modernist paintings to hang near the O’Keeffe, to help place the work in historical context.
Thomas Moran’s “Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah” (1892) • Moran painted this landscape nearly two decades after visiting Kanab and the Grand Canyon on an expedition in 1873, and Stebich said it’s likely the painting has never been displayed in Utah before.
His painting relied on sketches, memory, a bit of artistic license, and the relatively new technology of photography. It’s a departure from the dark landscapes of the Hudson River School, before the Civil War, which often depicted the approach of industry on the land.
“Moran is pulling out all the stops,” Stebich said. “He’s thinking about the importance of light, that guides our eye. … And the sky, that tells us that there’s surely something inspiring. It also speaks to the future of our country. These are not dark landscapes foreshadowing the Civil War. These are optimistic landscapes.”
Moran’s Grand Canyon expedition came two years after his famous trip through the Yellowstone area. The paintings from that trip were shown to members of Congress as they deliberated on the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
Work like Moran’s, she said, “is very important in creating national identity. It creates our sense of place, a sense that we are part of this American landscape. That is our inheritance.”
Alma Thomas’ “Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto” (1972) • Thomas, Stebich said, “is being reevaluated, is finding her rightful place. It’s because art historians, a younger generation, a lot of whom are women now, are now saying, ‘Where’s our story? Where are the artists who speak to us?’ Of course, they were there. They were overlooked. they were marginalized.”
Thomas, as an African American woman, broke two barriers in the art world with her vibrant abstract works, as part of a group of mid-20th century artists called the Washington Color School.
“She thinks about color in a very different way,” Stebich said. “‘Color is life,’ is one of her quotes. … She applies them, not thickly, but with a wide brush stroke. … But these aren’t abstract works for the sake of abstraction. She grounds them in sunsets, in ponds, in musical relationships. She thinks about art-making as part of life.”
UMFA is displaying other works from the Washington Color School, taken from the museum’s permanent collection, near Thomas’ painting.
Diego Rivera’s “La Ofrenda” (1931, on loan from Art Bridges) • Rivera’s painting depicts two women at a small table, or altar, performing a ritual important to Mexican culture. (The title translates to “The Offering.”)
Showing it along with the Smithsonian’s works, Dietrich said, highlights UMFA’s outreach to the Latino community in Utah — an effort that also includes printing the explanatory notes for many of the museum’s artworks in Spanish as well as English.
Stebich is struck with the juxtaposition of the Rivera painting and the O’Keeffe, facing each other from opposite walls in the same gallery.
The Rivera “tells you who lives in Mexico, what the important cultural traditions are that Diego and his wife, Frida [Kahlo], so much celebrated. And you look at the emptiness [in the O’Keeffe]. This is about modernity. This is about power. This is about New York City. And not a human in sight.”
The American West Consortium, the five-year collaboration among SAAM and museums in the western United States, includes The Boise Art Museum in Boise, Idaho; the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Ore.; and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash.
The collaboration also will bring together works from the Western museums’ collections for a touring exhibition. That tour will start in early 2021 at the Whatcom Museum, then go to the other four Western museums, and end at the Smithsonian in 2023.
CLASSICS AT UMFA
Four paintings by renowned artists — three of them from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, one from the foundation Art Bridges — on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
When • Now through Oct. 4, 2020.
Museum hours • Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open on Wednesdays until 9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Admission • $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors and youth (6 to 18); free for children 5 and under, UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active duty military families. Admission is $5 on Wednesdays after 5 p.m.
Free days • Free admission on the first Wednesdays and third Saturdays of the month.