American Art and National Identity

Prepared by Rita McCarthy, former Brauer Museum of Art Director, and
David Morgan, former Art Department Chair and Curator of the Exhibition.

1) Grant Wood's lithograph entitled Tree Planting Group may represent Arbor Day in the heartland of the American Midwest (Iowa, the home state of the artist). What attitude toward nature does this ceremony enact? Compare this image with Bearden's In the Garden. Is there a difference in the figure's relationship to the landscape in each image? Are there different allusions or iconographical sources for each image?

2) Faith Ringgold's lithograph, The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles, borrows a motif from the art of Vincent Van Gogh. Quilting as an art form with colorful abstract shapes and forms had a long tradition among women (black and white) in America. It is a craft that preceded Modernist art. Why has Ringgold included Van Gogh into this composition designed to celebrate important African-American women? Is the size of the figure significant in this composition? Why would quilting be considered an appropriate metaphor for politically progressive black women?

3) Bearden's In the Garden portrays a beautifully-dressed African-American woman in a garden. Is she a heroic figure? If so, why? How does Bearden use the symbol of the dove in this image? Is there a literary reference in this image? What other women in the Bible are portrayed in gardens?

4) Compare Laurie Hogin's landscape entitled Imperial Eyes: Indonesia with the painting adjacent to it by Frederic Church. How do the two artists view nature? How has Hogin's environment transformed this Bird of Paradise? Is this "Paradise Lost"? How does the text on her frame serve to shape the overall meaning of her painting? How does the relief of bats on her frame reinforce her message?

5) Compare Paul Sierra's emigration from Cuba (Family Portrait) to a work with a similar theme in the Bearden exhibition, Train Whistle Blues. How do Sierra's heavy use of paint and jarring colors compare with the medium of black and white collage? How do the formal elements in each serve to disquiet the viewer? Sierra and other artists in both exhibitions rely on religious and mythological allusions in their works. Can you identify any of these?

6) Compare the imaging of women in Lauren Greenfield's I Approve of Myself with Bearden's imaging of African-American women in the collage entitled Mysteries. Greenfield and Bearden each draw on many sources of the self available to them in mass culture. What is the self under construction in Greenfield's photography and how does it compare with the self under construction in Bearden's work? Is it meaningful to speak of Greenfield's "I" in question as personal and Bearden's as the collective self of all African Americans? Identify the sources of the self in both Bearden and Greenfield? Where does Bearden collect his imagery? Where does Greenfield gather hers?

7) American civil religion consists of rituals, ceremonies, narratives, heros and heroines, songs, music, images, statuary, and such sacred spaces as battlefields and the Mall in Washington, D.C. The intention behind the practice of civil religion is to preserve the constitutional importance of separation of church and state while creating in broadly religious terms the means for Americans to experience a single, collective sense of national identity. Each of the artifacts, places, and occasions mentioned above are what Americans are meant to share in a very public way despite their many differences. The bust of George Washington and the statue of Abraham Lincoln (Council of War) are two significant examples of American civil religion. Why? Do they actually work to unite Americans?

8) The identity of the United States is something that is constantly under revision. In fact, this nation has never been a simple, monolithic entity. The sculpture by George Lopez and the photograph by Graciela Iturbide remind us of the important history of Latino and indigenous cultures in the composition of America. How does Iturbide's photography subtly display the intermingling of cultures? And how does Lopez's sculpture mark the interaction of indigenous and European art and religion?

9) In the nineteenth century most Americans lived in the countryside. But the end of the century marked an important shift toward the city. Many immigrants settled in cities and great wealth was concentrated in banks, factories, and businesses in important commercial centers like New York and Chicago. The city emerged in the twentieth century as the symbol of American identity. Can you discern in the prints by Marin and Marsh how the city was regarded? And is there an alternative view in the etching by Hopper?