“Rather than having a single exhibition that fills all of our special exhibition spaces, we have this rather unique opportunity to combine three shows,” said Toby Jurovics, Joslyn Art Museum’s Chief Curator and Holland Curator of American Western Art.
It all started with the Jennifer Steinkamp installation, Madame Curie. The installation is a 16 x 61 foot projection of digital renderings of flowers that were cultivated by Madame Curie. Curie was a scientist who won two Nobel prizes, for creating the theory of radioactivity and for discovering the elements radium and polonium.
The installation was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
“I had the chance to see it there on a couple of occasions last year and it’s a really mesmerizing exhibition. You have this tumultuous flow of blossoms that cascade across the wall and I thought this would be the perfect thing for Omaha. It’ll help you beat your seasonal affective disorder once we get deep into March,” Jurovics said.
This will be the first time the installation will be shown as a multi-channel projection. Three projectors are used to create a seamless image across the gallery wall.
Jurovics said it’s an ongoing fluid loop where you see the blossoms of branches of these 18 flowers. He called the piece “hypnotic.”
Steinkamp became interested in atomic energy and was researching the dawn of the nuclear age and explosions when she came across a list of flowers in Madame Curie’s biography. She took the list and was able to digitally model each of the different images.
About the time the Steinkamp project was coming together, the Joslyn had the opportunity to work with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Joslyn was able to borrow ten of their most important Modernist paintings, from the first half of the 20th century, 1906 to 1948.
For Jurovics, the Whitney show has been a real delight.
“You always like to have in your head an idea of how things are going to come together before you get started, but once we unpacked everything and had the gallery installed, there were a few surprises. I think it’s a really remarkable group of American paintings. And I think they build a nice dialogue in the galleries,” he said.
Joslyn Director Jack Becker organized the exhibition and selected works that both complemented Joslyn’s permanent collection and also brought in works from artists that have not exhibited there before.
Jurovics said three of the museum’s paintings by John Sloan and one by Thomas Hart Benton complement the paintings in the Whitney’s collection.
“Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the jewels in your own collection. You see them in the same place when you come to the museum and it’s easy to walk by them, so we really tried to create a dialogue about American painting,” said Jurovics.
He said the exhibit features work by artists whose names are recognizable, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Hart Benton. But also offers works by artists who are not household names.
Artist Gerald Murphy had a compact production, creating fewer than 30 paintings. The one on view at the Joslyn is called “Cocktail” and is a still life based on his parents’ bar set. It includes a martini shaker, a box of cigars, an olive and a corkscrew.
According to Jurovics, Murphy had gone to Europe and hung out with people like Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway and subsequently became interested in painting. Murphy took advertising and machine-age illustration and started adapting it to familiar objects around the house.
“It’s a really whimsical and playful fun painting but it was also a really important part of that dialogue. The painting was made in 1927, so in that period between the wars. And you just don’t have the opportunity to see many Gerald Murphy’s, so it was a great chance for us to bring this work to audiences in Omaha without them having to go to New York to see it,” Jurovics said.
Another name people may not be familiar with is Max Weber. Jurovics said he was one of the most instrumental in bringing European Modernism to America. He spent three years in Paris, came back and was the person who introduced artists like Paul Cezanne to Alfred Stieglitz, an artist who ran the most important gallery in the U.S. during this period.
When Weber returned from Europe, he took the visual language he’d learned and created his painting of the interior of a Chinese restaurant in 1915.
“It really takes the language of European Cubism and applies it to Manhattan. At first it looks like this tumultuous explosion and then you can kind of begin to pick up elements of the restaurant, the linoleum on the floor and the waiters as they kind of scurry around the table. It really shows in this one image, how Americans began to integrate the lessons of European Modernism into our own vocabulary,” said Jurovics.
In a different gallery, 50 black and white gelatin silver prints of the prairie are on view.
Jurovics said with his photographs, William Wylie, “has managed to create this very elegant portrayal of the prairie and I wanted to emphasize that as a key element of the project.”
Every summer Wylie travels from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia to Colorado. He had gotten on a migratory pattern of driving back and forth and took a detour one day, up along Route 36.
“Bill was really captured by both the landscape and by these small towns that are still along the highway there. So for the next five years, driving back and forth, he would photograph along this route,” Jurovics said.
Wylie’s style ties into the traditions of American documentary photography that started with Walker Evans in the 1930s. For Jurovics, there’s a real intimacy to the work that reminds viewers how powerful even a small image can be on the wall.
“You could almost call the photographs a little dry. There’s a kind of restrained palette to how they are printed that reflects their subject. So they tend to be high key and almost very flat. What does it look like to photograph an aluminum building at high noon? Well you get all this light bouncing back at you and kind of get that sense that you are looking at the glare through these prints. I think there’s a real effort to create a clear relationship between the subject and the print,” Jurovics said.
Ultimately, he feels Wylie has managed to create a pleasing portrayal of the prairie, from streambeds to ravines.
Jurovics knows there are people who will prefer one show over the others and admitted his own favorite exhibition changes from day to day.
“There’s a real variety with all of these exhibits that shows something about the breadth of American art. These are all very firmly rooted in Modern Contemporary traditions, but in three very different ways,” he said.
Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum of American Art
Route 36: Photographs by William Wylie
Jennifer Steinkamp: Madame Curie
All three exhibitions run January 26th through May 12th at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, Call 402.342.3300 or visit joslyn.org.