The Michener Museum Shines Yet Again

James A. Michener Art Museum.
James A. Michener Art Museum.

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.

Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.
Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.

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.

Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.
Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.

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.

Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.
Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.

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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Rocked By Rockwell Kent

On a fine and sunny recent weekday afternoon, my wife and I headed north to what has become a suburban oddity, a genuinely good-looking and thriving town, one not marred by poor design and too many nail salons and tattoo parlors. I speak of Doylestown, in somewhat bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Our mission was to survey the three new exhibits at the James A. Michener Art Museum. The Michener is a splendid place. Modern and comfortable and spacious, it holds a diverse permanent collection anchored by works of 19th and 20th century Pennsylvania Impressionist landscape painters. Best of all, the Michener itself curates, or brings in from other museums, many special exhibitions each year. To me, a lot of them are fascinating and well-done. I’m not hard to please. Sometimes.

The three Michener shows on our agenda were: Rodin: The Human Experience — Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Collections; Kate Breakey: Small Deaths; and The Artist in the Garden. The Rodin and Breakey exhibits are a-ok. Auguste Rodin was famous in his lifetime, which ended about 100 years ago, and is no less so today, for good reason. His bronze statues and modelings are something else, often wildly undulating. The Michener is loaded with them right now. The Breakey display is of her large, in-your-face photographs of birds and flowers. The birds are newly-deceased (not by Breakey’s hand), and the flowers are decaying. Breakey, whom I’d never heard of before, hand colors the photographs, creating powerful images and giving new life to her subjects.

Rockwell Kent in his late 30s
Rockwell Kent in his late 30s

But forget Rodin and Breakey. The visit to the Michener would have been worth it to me for one art work alone, the first one that caught my eye as I made my way into the exhibition halls. It is “Winter Sunrise, Whiteface Mountain,” an oil painting from 1952 by a favorite of mine, the should-be-more-famous Rockwell Kent. He painted the picture near his home in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This oil, part of The Artist in the Garden exhibit, is broadly angled and limited in its mostly-muted color choices. Half-bare trees run along the bottom of the canvas, sun-brightened mountain ridges dominate the middle, and a murky green sky looks down at everything below. The painting somehow captures nature in an elemental way, which is what many great paintings do. I stared at the Kent for quite a while. The information card next to the painting said that Rockwell thought of nature as one unending garden, or something or other like that, and that’s why the curators included this most non-garden-like painting of trees and mountains in the “Garden” show. Well, they’ve probably stretched the point really wide, but that’s fine with me. Otherwise I’d never have seen this work.

Rockwell Kent died in 1971 at age 88. He had been a fine art painter, a book and magazine illustrator, a political thinker and activist, a wilderness adventurer, a chronicler of his life and travels, a farmer. Yup, an all-around cool guy. In 1927 he designed the logo used to this day by Random House book publishers. He gained a lot of fame for his pen and ink drawings of a 1930 edition of Moby Dick.

A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)
A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)

In a small way, he has been a part of my life for almost 20 years, dating back to when I first set foot in the Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod. Cape Cinema is an art movie house, whose vaulted ceilings and walls, most incredibly, are dynamically covered by a mural portraying the heavens and its mythological residents. Rockwell designed the mural in 1930. He climbed scaffolding and painted some of the square footage himself, but he was smart (or otherwise occupied) and left most of that heavy lifting to his collaborator Jo Mielziner. Their labors resulted in gorgeous swaths of yellows, oranges, purples and blues. I’ve been to Cape Cinema many times, because my wife and I are Cape Cod lovers and also cinephiles. With each visit there, my connection to Kent, as it is, seems to renew. Is there another movie theater like this in the world? I doubt it.