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Frist Art Museum Presents Southern/Modern

by Cass Teague
Nell Choate Jones (1879-1981). Georgia Red Clay, 1946. Oil on canvas; 25 x 30 in. Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA, 1989.01094

The Frist Art Museum presents Southern/Modern, the first comprehensive survey of paintings and works on paper created in the American South between 1913 and 1955 that reflect a period of change and upheaval across the region. The exhibition features several iconic African American artists. Organized by the Mint Museum in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art, the exhibition will be on view in the Frist’s Ingram Gallery through April 28, 2024.

Southern/Modern features more than one hundred works by artists such as Carroll Cloar, Aaron Douglas, Caroline Durieux, Will Henry Stevens, Alma Thomas, and others who worked in states below the Mason-Dixon line and as far west as the Mississippi River. It also includes artists from outside the South, such as Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine de Kooning, all of whom spent time at North Carolina’s experimental Black Mountain College, as well as Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, and others whose works reflect on Southern experiences from a distance.

William H. Johnson (1901-70). Evening, 1940-41. Oil on burlap; 49 x 38 in. Florence County Museum, Florence, SC. Gift of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution

Full of vibrant, often emotionally charged works, Southern/Modern shows how in the South, as elsewhere, modern artists linked social and aesthetic progress, hoping to change the way people saw their world. The curators, Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American art at the Mint Museum and Dr. Martha R. Severens, an independent scholar, included important works by women and people of color, with styles ranging from American scene painting and regionalism to cubism and abstraction.

The exhibition begins with a section titled “Southerners,” a look into the lives of people engaged in everyday activities—chatting, out for a stroll, or shopping, which illustrates the racial divide that has marked the South and the nation for centuries, with only a few images showing Black and white people together in the same setting.

“Landscape as Metaphor” explores the South’s rural and agricultural identity in views of environmental abuse and neglect, the desolate landscape a metaphor for the hardscrabble lives of the people living in these places. “Religion and Ritual” visualizes the power of faith in Black communities, in works such as John McCrady’s version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Malvin Gray Johnson’s Roll, Jordan, Roll.

“Segregation and Jim Crow” portrays a darker side of Black experience in the South, creating powerful indictments of segregation in public life, on the beach, in the military, and in the town square. References to racial violence include Loïs Mailou Jones’s powerful portrait Mob Victim (Meditation) and Eldzier Cortor’s devastating painting Southern Souvenir, representing two fragmented Black bodies as if they were shattered statuary.

Elaine de Kooning (1918-89). Black Mountain #6, 1948. Enamel on paper mounted on canvas; 26 x 32 in. The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY. Museum purchase

Laborers—farmers, coal miners, fishermen, and factory workers—are spotlighted in the next section. The final two sections, “Planting New Seeds: Colonies and Schools” and “Many Modernisms,” feature works that are more abstract by artists from outside the South or Southerners who had gone to cities like New York and Paris to learn about new movements and experience firsthand the works of luminaries such as Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by the University of North Carolina Press, containing more than 175 rich illustrations and a dozen essays by contributing curators and leading art scholars.

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