Making It In America at the Rhode Island School of Design’s art museum in Providence is not a blockbuster exhibit. There is no definitive catalogue, nor are there plans for the show to go onto the road. Displayed are one hundred works of painting and sculpture, along with some furniture and decorative arts. But this “first in-depth exploration of this subject in many years” demonstrates how exceptional quality has little to do with museum size or huge hype.
RISD’s collection, for example, of John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart portraits, Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole romantic landscapes, and Paul Manship and Hiram Powers sculptures, plus a Windsor chair and a Frank Lloyd Wright library table, have been mostly in storage or shown in the staid 1906 Pendelton House wing of the museum. Museum director, John W. Smith, with curators Maureen O’Brien and Elizabeth Williams, decided to show off the school’s American art collection around the theme of the creation of works of art and their relationship to stories of “searches for freedom, fulfillment, and identity.”
To accomplish this, the work is displayed in the new Chace wing designed by architect Rafael Moneo. Although the Pritzker Prize winning Spaniard has designed some outstanding museums abroad, his new addition at RISD is one of the least inspiring exhibition spaces in recent memory.
Thus, the well-known New York decorator, Thomas Jayne, was commissioned to “make these cold spaces zing.” Instead of the usual blank backdrops, Jayne employed a lot of color and pattern, such as reproductions of 18th-century wallpapers.
Mixing decorative arts and the so-called fine arts make for some nice juxtapositions, but the aspirations of “zing” fall far short. Nevertheless, it is enough merely to become acquainted with RISD’s phenomenal collection of American art. Ultimately, it is the work that matters, and the depth of a century of perceptive and smart collecting is what is on display here. One of RISD’s first purchases was Winslow Homer’s seascape On a Lee Shore of 1900, and similar quality shines throughout. Seen altogether, RISD focused on quality, and not just on big names. The work by RISD’s famous artists is exemplary, such as two superb Martin Johnston Heade landscapes, one of Ash Can School painter George Bellows’ finest cityscapes, and a knock-your-socks-off impressionistic Berkshire scene by George Inness.
As befitting a teaching museum, there are lesser known but equally good pieces, in this case, a lot of silverware, china, and furniture. Whether we are talking about an epitome of American cabinetry, such as John Goddard’s Chippendale desk, a Favrile vase by Tiffany, or a silver nail file by Gorham, each piece offers both insights into our national psyche and serves as a tribute to the ideal of craftsmanship that was fundamental to the design school’s founding.
Amidst the absolute first-rate and the very good, let me single out two pieces of tremendously powerful sculpture. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, creator of the incomparable Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, embodied the American Renaissance in his classical angels. Less ethereal, but equally arresting is this noble native American by Alexander Stirling Calder, a great artist in his own right, but typically identified (as at RISD) and the father of his namesake, the creator of the mobile.
Making It in America at the RISD Museum, 20 North Main Street, Providence; through February 9, 2014.