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Marking Time 

Art Review

EXHIBIT: "Marks of Distinction: 200 Years of American Drawings and Watercolors." Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. Through May 29.

ARTWORK: "Drawing for 'Under the Lamp'" by Mary Cassatt (detail)

At Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art, a brilliant exhibition entitled "Marks of Distinction" highlights 200 years -- 1769 to 1969 -- of American drawings, mixed-media watercolors and collage. In 1769, America simply wasn't on the artistic map; by 1969, New York was the artistic center of the world.

The show begins with John Singleton Copley's 1769 pastel portrait of New Hampshire's last royal governor, native son John Wentworth. At a time when opulent oil portraits by Thomas Gainsborough were all the rage in Britain, Copley's Wentworth seems relatively plain. But the self-taught Copley was a genius, and his expertise in pastel portraiture is unmatched. A 1784 pen-and-ink drawing by Benjamin West, "Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation," is in a more Romantic style and lacks the directness of Copley's work -- a directness that came to characterize American art.

Copley and West were two of America's most prominent artists in the 18th century -- a time when the 3500-mile trip to London required about six weeks at sea. Both made that journey prior to the American Revolution: West went east to England in 1763, Copley in 1774. Neither bothered to return.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, time and space became compressed, and artists' transatlantic voyages went in both directions with greater frequency. Martin Johnson Heade, an avid world traveler and a dynamic painter of the American landscape, is generally identified with the Hudson River School. Yet his circa 1860 pencil drawing, "Two Studies of Islands," presents an unromanticized, calm realism devoid of the luminosity that typically infused Hudson River artists' paintings. Although Heade is known to have visited Rome on two occasions, his trips were more concerned with natural history than with painting.

A later generation of Americans that included James McNeil Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer was more in tune with the international fine-arts scene. These artists spent considerable time in Europe, and are well represented in the Hood show.

Cassatt's "Drawing for 'Under the Lamp,'" from around 1880, displays a thorough assimilation of Impressionism. This supremely confident conte-crayon study for a subsequent print contains some of the most distinctive marks in "Marks of Distinction." Cassatt was included in the fourth annual Impressionist exhibition in 1879; Edgar Degas is considered to have been her mentor. Her formal studies, however, included the tutelage of academicians Jean-Leon Gerôme in Paris and Carlo Raimondi in Italy.

Just as Cassatt is identified with Impressionism, Alexander Calder is tied to Dada and Surrealism. His 1931 pen-and-ink contour-line drawing of acrobats, entitled "The Exits," exhibits the playfulness of his mobiles. Stuart Davis was another "Lost Generation" American visiting post-World War I Paris. His 1928 watercolor over graphite, "Statue, Paris," shares Calder's playfulness. The works of Abstract Expressionists David Smith, Jackson Pollack, Adolph Gottlieb and other 20th-century greats are also prominent in this show.

The 80 works in "Marks of Distinction" comprise a compendium of American art and include ethnically diverse examples of folk art. Nineteenth-century artist James Bard's chalk-and-watercolor study on paper, entitled "The Steamer Merneman Sanford," is representative of his sharply rendered marine-themed works. A Kiowa Indian ledger drawing of dancing braves has similarly delicate lines, and its figures seem to float in space. "House with Figures and Animals" by Bill Traylor features the hard-edged, mystical figures for which the ex-slave's works on cardboard are now well known. It's sadly ironic that Traylor, who died in 1947, was often homeless, yet today his works can fetch six figures.

Romare Bearden's 1968 collage "Two Figures" is hung beside Traylor's piece -- and not, one hopes, simply because both artists were African-American. However, devoting one wall of the exhibition exclusively to works by African-Americans certainly gives the impression that categorization by race -- rather than solely stylistic or historic concerns -- was part of the curatorial approach.

Bearden, Matisse and Picasso are arguably the 20th century's three greatest collage artists. In Bearden's "Two Figures," a man in blue jeans and a woman in a blue dress walk through a city described in grays, beige and brown. His understated color harmony is enlivened with closely arrayed values and patterns, as well as snippets of photography.

The works included in "Marks of Distinction" are drawn completely from the Hood's permanent collection, and that in itself is remarkable. The growth in stature of American art during the two centuries that separated Copley from Bearden has been nothing short of revolutionary.

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About The Author

Marc Awodey

Marc Awodey

Painter, poet, writer, musician, guerilla publisher and numismatist Marc Awodey, 1960-2012, was the Seven Days arts critic for more than a decade before his death at age 51. We all miss him.


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