Drawings at the Academy Art Museum in Maryland

Took a trip to visit one of my favorite regional art museums yesterday, the Academy Art Museum, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the town of Easton. I've watched the Museum grow since the early 1970's when two of its earliest directors were my friends the painters Henry Coe and Rob Seyfert. But much has changed since those days when it was really more of a community art center. It has undergone a couple of significant renovations and expansions from its original schoolhouse (or was it perhaps a church?) beginnings. And it went about acquiring a significant Permanent Collection. A lot of that growth happened during the long tenure of Chris Brownawell as Director. Chris just moved to Maine to head up the Farnsworth Art Museum, another real gem of an East Coast art museum. We hope he took his mittens along with him.

If you're anywhere near Easton, MD the Academy Museum is a worth a detour to visit. It is perhaps my all time favorite conversion on an old building to house a spankingly new-looking facility. While retaining the charm of its original setting, the lobby gallery space and courtyard that greet the visitor as they enter are intimate, welcoming, and very beautifully done. For a modest facility it makes a big impact.

The Museum's Curator, Brian Young, has put together a first class survey show (up through April 2, 2010) Modern Drawing: Tracing 100 Years. I had the opportunity to hear a gallery talk last evening on the show. Picured below is an new acquisition Young made for the Museum that opens the exhibition, a graphite pencil drawing by the eminent French artist Pierre Bonnard. View of the Seine from Bonnard's Garden in Vernon, 1912-13.

Young commented the drawing showed Bonnard flattening out of forms in a way typical of French post impressionist artists. I always get the feeling in Bonnard that he wants your eye to wash over the whole canvas like a gentle wave sweeping over the beach sands. And he does that here, letting the foreground grasses merge easily into his taller trees at the right. One thing Bonnard usually gets right is the overall feeling for colored light that surrounds one when they're out in the landscape. Even in this graphite pencil drawing you can feel the artist trying to wrap the light all around the viewer.

Here's Brian Young speaking about one of the two Arthur Davies drawings in the show- this one a watercolor and crayon drawing titled simply Venice. Though I'm no Davies scholar, I'd guess this is an earlier piece and it seems to owe a great deal to the tradition of Venetian images from Whistler's etchings and earlier still Turner's watercolors. A handsome little piece.

On the opposing wall of the same gallery is another Arthur Davies, this one the wonderfully mysterious gouache drawing Children at Dusk. Davies was friends with the artists of the American Ashcan School like Robert Henri and John Sloan and was active in their exhibitions. But while the others of this group were trying for a more clear-eyed realism, Davies had a deeply romantic and even mystical streak in him. In this moody little piece it is night and we might be looking at a secret sacred ceremony. I love it.

And here below is a graphite pencil drawing by the Easton artist James Plumb of a rabbit that is heartbreakingly tender. It holds its own against any of the other pieces in the show. There's a famous drawing by Albrecht Durer, the German renaissance artist, of a rabbit in the same pose that must have inspired this contemporary homage.

In the second gallery space are more contemporary pieces. Here's a terrific figure study by the American sculptor Philip Grausman. While I am a landscape painter myself, I learned to draw by doing thousands of studies from the nude model and have enormous appreciation for that tradition (and I teach figure drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art). This Grausman guy knows his stuff. One of the things artists are supposed to do is notice important things others have overlooked. In this drawing Grausman does exactly that with the sensitive transitions of the muscles of the thigh attaching themselves to the pelvis. There is a poetry to the lines of our body Grausman tells us.

Here's Brian with a Franz Kline at the far left and a William Baziotes in the middle.

And here's a close up of the Kline, H. Daum: Black and White Abstract, 1950, watercolor and guouche on heavy brown paper laid down on cardboard. Kline at his best could milk a few shapes for all they're worth to express a drama of movement and of personalities. This is one of his stronger pieces of this type in my opinion.

In concluding his talk, the Curator said something I liked very much. In his view, many museums segregate their exhibitions into major shows for big name artists and a few little offerings for lesser known regional artists. Young explained that as long as the work was strong, he likes to mix both sorts of artists together in the same exhibition. He's done that here. Partly it is a way for museums to live within their hard pressed budgets, especially in these recession driven times.

But it also chips away at the official sanction of who is important and who isn't. Established hierarchies probably always should be questioned a little. A survey show like Modern Drawings: Tracing 100 Years invite's viewers to draw their own conclusions about what's of lasting quality. I wish more museum people would adopt his idea.


  1. Would an Alex Katz be included here?

  2. Hello. I'm the Baziotes owner.
    Brian does very good work, nice show.

    But the Kline, as you noted, was one spectacular drawing.

    All the greater when you can accomplish so much in a limited size.

    Thanks for the pix.

    Michael Preble

  3. Hi Michael and thanks for your comment and thanks for helping the Museum stage such a good show. (Baziotes by the way was one of my heroes when I was first starting out in painting). Yes, the scale of most drawings is one of their big attractions I think. There's always a place for modest and intimate statements from artists. As you note the particular energy they can produce can bowl you over sometimes.

    I remember when I was an art student starting to go to museums, I would always head first to the drawing and prints galleries. Somehow to my earlier eyes, the artists just revealed themselves to me more clearly in work on paper than I could fathom in from their oil paintings. To this day charcoal drawings and pastel color studies remain the bedrock I build my own large oils.


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