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American Muralist Tom Lea
September 23, 2014


On September 24, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will co-host a national conference that examines the importance of preserving WPA-era murals using the work of celebrated American muralist Tom Lea as a case study. The conference has been organized by the Tom Lea Institute, and in anticipation of the conference, Programs Coordinator Allison Jessing spoke with Adair Margo, former Chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities during the two-term Presidency of George W. Bush, and Founder and President of the Tom Lea Institute. The conference is free and open to the public, but advance registration is recommended.

Tom Lea

Tom Lea's Southwest

Eye Level: Tom Lea was a prolific muralist and acclaimed author, but not widely known outside of Texas. Can you tell us a little more about him?

Adair Margo: It's funny, when I was chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, I mentioned Tom Lea in D.C. I found many people did know him. David McCullough was pleased to meet Sarah Lea when George and Laura Bush dedicated the Oval Office with Tom's painting Rio Grande on the wall. He said Tom introduced him to the romance of the West through novels like The Wonderful Country and illustrations for J. Frank Dobie's The Longhorns.

Military leaders knew the eye-witness paintings he did during World War II for LIFE magazine, remembering how they lined the walls of the Pentagon before 9/11. They never forgot them. Legislators knew his portrait of Sam Rayburn in the Rayburn Building, and some even remembered his 1936 mural The Nesters in the Ben Franklin Post Office (now the Ariel Rios Building) on Pennsylvania Avenue before it was lost in the 1950s. With its larger than life figures of a dust bowl couple, that mural left an impression, just as his murals across the United States inspired pride in regional heritage when painted in the 1930s and '40s. They still do, when people are aware they are still there.

Of course, we from Texas knew him best because he was from El Paso and he chose to stay here, drawing his nourishment from a place so spacious and bare. Robert Caro told me at the 2007 Texas Book Festival that "Tom Lea was an unsung genius of our time who made it purely on the quality of his work." He undoubtedly was and did.

EL: How did you come to discover the works of Tom Lea?

AM: First, I knew Tom Lea the man. In fact, my great-grandfather baptized him when he was eight years old, and my grandmother went to high school with him. Our families were friends, and I came to know his work growing up in El Paso. His Southwest mural was in a reading room of our public library dedicated to books on our region, and his Pass of the North mural, with giants of El Paso's Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo history, was in our Federal Courthouse. It had a powerful impact on a child.

In El Paso, there's a mountain in the middle of our city and every December we would light a star on it to usher in Christmas. Tom Lea would read his beautiful Old Mount Franklin on television and we would look to the mountain to see the lighting of the star.

His work helped shape me as a youngster growing up in El Paso, and I felt privileged when he called to ask me to help him with his work in 1993. He'd never had anyone represent him before. Instead, he had a list of people who would wait until they received his call telling them a painting was available. He entrusted over 400 drawings to me the same year the University of Texas at El Paso asked me to record his oral history. Going over the mountain to his home every Saturday morning for two hours over a six month period was a wonderful experience, and those weekly visits changed to Monday evenings, continuing until his death in 2001.

EL: Do you have a favorite Lea work? What about it makes it special to you?

AM: The portrait he did of his wife, Sarah, following World War II is unforgettably beautiful. Tom named it Sarah in the Summertime, and he said he painted it as if lighting a votive candle in the gratefulness of being home. During the war he carried a photograph of Sarah standing in the back yard of their home, and as he traveled to theaters of war, he would look at it with a distant kind of worship. When he came home, he had Sarah pose in the same dress and he spent two years painting her, taking twenty-six days just to paint the pattern of the little flowers on her dress. Her solidity and serenity say a lot about her constancy.

I especially love it because it shows how the effects of war need not darken a person's soul. In Tom's case, the terror he experienced sharpened his appreciation of the things he loved most at home. He knew he couldn't paint Mount Franklin while the rest of the world was on fire, but he knew when he returned home, he would know all the more what Mount Franklin meant to him. He certainly knew what Sarah meant to him and said without hesitation at the end of his life that Sarah in the Summertime was his greatest work. He went on to say that the reason why he loved it most was because he knew her.

EL: Are there any anecdotes about Tom Lea you can share with us?

AM: When I opened Adair Margo Gallery in 1985, I went to visit Tom Lea at his home. Because of my respect for him, I was seeking his blessing. With initial notions of exhibiting what was "innovative" and "new," I remember his discomfort with my words. "Artistic vision" and "contemporary expression" meant nothing to him, but a belief in knowledge, diligence and skill most certainly did. His truthfulness gave me a perspective I needed, and the beginnings of a much stronger footing.

EL: Where can people learn more about Tom Lea and his works?

AM: The largest repository of his art and writing is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin, people can also see his work in the Texas State Capitol, at the Blanton Museum, and his cenotaph with Mount Franklin on Republic Hill at the Texas State Cemetery. The Bullock Texas State History Museum will host an exhibition of his work in October 2015.

Tom Lea's World War II paintings for LIFE magazine are in the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, though in storage. Some are being conserved in order to travel to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg in October 2015. In D.C., American Art has the beautiful Southwest study for the El Paso Public Library mural on view in the Luce Foundation Center; the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill has Sam Rayburn's portrait; and the State Department has a portrait of Benito Juarez in its Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

In El Paso, the El Paso Museum of Art has a Tom Lea Gallery with some of his work, though most is in storage and can be seen by appointment. The University of Texas at El Paso Special Collections has an archive of his papers and will be acquiring his letters to J. Frank Dobie. El Paso also has murals in the El Paso Public Library and the Historic Federal Courthouse. The Tom Lea Institute, established to perpetuate his legacy, hosts Tom Lea Month annually and named a Tom Lea Trail, which connects eleven Texas cities through his art, crossing the border at El Paso. Its website is a good resource, as are several booklets it has published, including J.P. Bryan's Tom Lea and Texas.

Tom Lea's public murals are in Chicago; Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas: Dallas, Texas; Pleasant Hill, Missouri; Odessa Texas; and Seymour, Texas.

His novels The Wonderful Country and The Brave Bulls are still in print, as is his two volume history of The King Ranch, which the ranch distributes. His other books, The Hands of Cantu about the arrival of the first horses in America with the Spanish, written in English as if spoken Spanish, can be found on ABE books online. To get an expansive look at his life, A Picture Gallery, published by Little, Brown and Company on ABE is great, as is the oral history I recorded, Tom Lea, An Oral History, published by Texas Western Press. Tom Lea spoke at the DeGolyer Library at SMU in 1992, a presentation they published called The Southwest is Where I Live. I go back to that little booklet over and over again. Also, in Texas A&M University Press' The Two Thousand Yard Stare, Tom Lea's World War II, Marine aviator Brendan Greeley compiled his World War II work for LIFE.

EL: Thank you! This conference is going to be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about a fantastic artist!

IMAGE: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=71561

Posted by Jeff on September 23, 2014 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here, American Art Research
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Lunder Conservation Center: Revealing A Drawing Through Preservation
September 18, 2014


William H. Johnson

William H. Johnson drawing discovered on the back on one of his artworks undergoing conservation.

In our Lunder Conservation Center, our fellow, Im Chan, has been working for months assessing and treating a group of prints and drawings by William H. Johnson. Ms. Chan removes any potentially damaging materials that were added after the artist finished the piece. With Johnson's Boy's Sunday Trip, the drawing was previously adhered to an acidic paperboard backing (an acidic backing can result in a deterioration of the artwork).

When she began removing the backing, she discovered a surprise on the work's verso (back side): a previously unknown drawing. We're not yet sure what the purpose of this drawing was. Perhaps it was an early draft of a new mural. Future research remains to be done.

Posted by Chris on September 18, 2014 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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Artist Lilly Martin Spencer
September 16, 2014


Erin Benz interned at American Art's Luce Foundation Center this summer. While here, she took the time to write about one of her favorite artists in our collection, Lilly Martin Spencer.

Lilly Martin Spencer

Lilly Martin Spencer's We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian)

I first became interested in the painter, Lilly Martin Spencer, when I learned about her in my sophomore art history class. Amongst the many mid-nineteenth century male artists who we were learning about Spencer was one of the only female artists we studied. Immediately, I became intrigued as to how a woman was able to succeed in a predominately male field while being a mother and wife at the same time. Her paintings also interested me as they were beautifully detailed, yet frequently included a comical aspect which, combined, made viewing her paintings fun. Spencer's painting, We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian) is on display here at American Art and always catches my eye when I wander past it. The beautiful fabric and exquisite details make me stop and take in this painting's magnificence.

Lilly Martin Spencer was born in England in 1822 and immigrated to the United States ten years later. Spencer was unique as she was a female painter who lived off of her work and was the sole provider for her family. Her husband, Benjamin Spencer, did not have a job and mainly helped his wife as a business manager. In order to make a living off of her paintings, Spencer decided to paint popular genre scenes that would sell better than her previous allegorical paintings. By taking her everyday experiences from home, she was able to move from her old subject matter to her new. With thirteen children, Spencer had to balance making a living and being a mother at a time when women's jobs were clearly domestic while their husbands worked. Though genre painting eventually fell out of fashion, Spencer is still considered one of America's greatest genre painters.

See! From those priceless jewels in her bower,
The queenly Beauty turns her neck away,
And Eyes that pale not 'neath the diamond's ray,
Muse in their loveliness on one sweet flower—
Whose bloom alas! Has reach'd its fated hour.

Thomas C. Latto
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Spencer's 1869 painting, We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian), can be seen on the second floor of the museum. In it, Spencer depicts a beautiful young woman surrounded by jewels and clothed in layers of expensive blue fabric. Great detail is given to the design of the dress and, at 6 feet tall, commands the viewer's attention while showing off Spencer's great skill. Though the subject appears to be wealthy and have many suitors (as the jewels appear to suggest), Spencer implies that her beauty is only temporary and will eventually disappear. As the flower is her hand wilts, she too will eventually succumb to life's ultimate price: time.

Posted by Bridget on September 16, 2014 in American Art Here
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Luce Artist Talks: Emily Francisco
September 12, 2014


Emily Francisco

Emily Francisco's The Trans-Harmonium: A Listening Station, 2011-12, Interactive Sculptural Music Device, Dimensions Vary (roughly 70" x 36" x 36"). Image courtesy of the Artist.

You've heard of landscapes and cityscapes, but how about soundscapes? DC-based artist Emily Francisco creates these immersive audio environments and she'll talk about her recent work when she kicks off the Luce Foundation Center's fall Artist Talks series this Sunday, September 14 at 1:30 p.m. Francisco's pieces are especially interesting because, while they involve destruction, they're not in and of themselves destructive. Rather, Francisco takes everyday objects—like pianos, nutcrackers, and radios, and constructs entirely new pieces and experiences from them. The Trans-harmonium: A Listening Station is a keyboard that's wired to dozens of radiosbut doesn't play musical notes. Instead, it broadcasts from a different radio station each time a key is pushed.

Francisco earned her MFA from American University last year and just concluded her appointment as Artist in Residence at Artistphere in Rosslyn, Virginia, this April. Her latest show, Something Slightly Familiar, will run at CulturalDC's Flashpoint Gallery from September 12 through October 11, 2014.

In American Art's Luce Artists Talks series, local artists discuss a work on view in the museum and why it resonates with them. Talks begin at 1:30 p.m. Presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.

Posted by Bridget on September 12, 2014 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Throwback Thursday: Han's Hofmann's Fermented Soil
September 11, 2014


It's Throwback Thursday! And we at Eye Level have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting posts from the past. American Art has been publishing our blog since September 2005 (that's an eternity in Internet years) and some of our posts are as current now as the day we first posted them. Today, we feature a version of Howard's February 2008 post on Hans Hofmann's painting, Fermented Soil. You can see Fermented Soil on American Art's 3rd Floor, North Wing.

Hans Hofmann's Fermented Soil

Hans Hofmann's Fermented Soil

Fermented Soil by Hans Hofmann contains such fresh joy and vigor it is hard to believe it was painted by a man in his mid-eighties. It swings like a jazz sextet.  Hofmann was right in the swim of what was going on in painting at that moment, and Color Field painting would have been impossible without his contribution.

Fermented Soil achieves the layers of poetry that Hofmann was in search of throughout his career. In fact, Hofmann would sometimes use a line from German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, as a title. The famous push-pull that he emphasized in his teaching can be seen in this painting; the insistence on tension in composition achieved through the handling of paint and juxtaposition of color, like the interplay of notes or chords in music. In all those improvised strokes there is an assurance that can only come through the blood memory of painting for more than six decades.  The color is pure Hofmann and comes from the many landscapes, figure studies, and still lifes he painted.  His paint seems as edible as fruit.

Born in Germany, Hofmann first came to America in 1930 as a mature artist.  He taught many students who would become important painters, including Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner. There is an implicit connection through Krasner to Jackson Pollock, who was her husband. Art critic Clement Greenberg would often visit Hofmann’s studio, and dialogues between the two men played a role in developing Greenberg’s thoughts on art.

Hofmann’s earlier work is marked by many influences, from Seurat and postimpressionism to Picasso and Matisse. When Hofmann was in his seventies and eighties and was able to stop teaching, his work came to fullest flower. His contact with the New York School enabled this Zen-like jump to a new plateau, where his lifetime of disciplined work and teaching allowed him to paint with the flow of a jazz improvisationist. 

Posted by Jeff on September 11, 2014 in American Art Here, Throwback Thursday
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