One of the things I like about art shows is that they can surprise you (in a good way). It’s a gas when a museum or gallery curator comes up with a new slant or assembles a themed exhibition that makes you say “great idea!” That’s part of the fun of going to places such as the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. Not always, but often you can expect the unexpected there. Five years ago the Michener mounted a fascinating display of costumes worn by movie stars in famous movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather jacket from The Terminator was in the house. So was Elizabeth Taylor’s gown from A Place In The Sun. That show caught me off guard by its coolness and inventiveness. Its idea seemed obvious, but only after the fact.
A similar sense of forward thinking surrounds a current Michener exhibition, the long-titled Iron And Coal, Petroleum And Steel: Industrial Art From The Steidle Collection. The works on view have been borrowed from their permanent home in State College, PA. There they reside within Penn State University’s Earth And Mineral Sciences Museum And Art Gallery, another mouthful. Hats off to the Michener for knowing of the off-the-beaten-track Steidle collection’s existence and for smartly organizing the paintings and their messages.
Edward Steidle (1887-1977) was a mover and shaker for many years in the worlds of mineral and petroleum extraction and use. An engineer, teacher and college administrator, he was dean from 1928 to 1953 of Penn State’s College Of Earth And Mineral Sciences. He also collected art, much of which he commissioned, that depicted the earth industries in action. The students at Penn State’s earth and minerals school were surrounded by examples of ores and extraction implements in the school buildings. Steidle, to my mind somewhat of a visionary in this respect, wanted artistic representations of the same also to be on view at the university.
Louise Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, from 1936, was the first work I grabbed onto at the Michener after quickly scanning the collection. I loved its muted tones, the hulking mass of the tipple and of the hill in the foreground, the clouds of smoke issuing from all over the canvas, the lonely patch of green grass. Pershing mapped out her painting precisely and filled it with feeling.
Pershing’s oil painting represented a pretty good number of the ah-hah moments that I had in the Steidle galleries. What struck me first when I walked into the exhibit were the colors on the canvases. As with Pershing’s work, largely they were subdued or somber, the hues of earth and coal, of heavy equipment. As I walked around the galleries I noticed some other things. For one, nearly all the paintings were strongly designed and observant. Steidle had a good eye for art. Also, I was completely unfamiliar with the 40 or so artists in the show, excepting one or two. Post-Michener research confirmed that most of them had nice modest careers in their day but didn’t make it to the ladder of fame — only a few have garnered Wikipedia biographies. And I saw that a good number of the paintings were by women, not always the case on museum walls.
The Michener’s Steidle exhibition is a winner because it includes a boatload of works equal to Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, some maybe even better. Henry Poor’s Miners In A Lift, for example, which he painted in 1947. Five (or is it six?) coal miners are within the tight wooden cage, about to step outside the mine entrance, their shift over. Emerging from near-darkness into light, their eyes are hugely distended. The painting tells life stories, as the workers’ uneasiness about their dangerous occupation is on their faces. The confined framework of the painting brings power and immediacy to this work. It probably was my favorite at the Michener show.
The Steidle collection is said to be one of the best collections of industrial art in the USA. When these works were created, coal and steel were massively important industries in Pennsylvania and nationally. A few decades later they pretty much collapsed. The paintings are in that sense a time capsule of what once was. The historical aspect of the Michener show was presented clearly and didn’t make my eyes glaze over, the museum avoiding ponderous explanations on its informational placards. But, half-baked art aficionado that I am, I was more interested in the painterly aspects of the Steidle exhibit than in straight history.
Take, for instance, Rose Ann McGary’s Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press. She painted this canvas in 1936. It shows workmen shaping red hot steel, and would have earned a thumbs up from the artist Fernand Léger and his fellow Cubism descendants. A carefully assembled construction of planes, cylinders and boxlike shapes, Forging The Shaft takes Cubism’s original color scheme of grays and browns and adds, just off-center, an explosion of pink. It is both a contained and dynamic painting.
The Steidle show closes on October 25. There’s still time to see it.
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