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Through October 2, 2005 at Orange County Museum of Art, Orange County

by Jeanne Willette

Robert Henri, "Edna Smith,"
1915, oil on canvas, 41 x 33".

Grant Wood, "Return from
Bohemia," 1935, crayon/gouache/
pencil on paper, 23 1/2 x 20".
Collecting art is a passion, and the collector is driven by the desire to acquire, to accumulate, and to amass the best of a quest that is a lifetime journey. "Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950" represents something of a coup, being a small portion of one of the most important and extensive collections of American art, and it is one that has never been shown publicly. This is, quite simply, a must-see show, a destination exhibition, for the general population and for art experts alike. The average art goer will find the art accessible and, for many, even nostalgic; the cognescenti will get the opportunity to see art that normally can be viewed only in Minneapolis.

As a scholar of American art, curator Elizabeth Armstrong had known of the remarkable collection of Myron Kunin while she was a student at Berkeley. Later, when at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Armstrong took the opportunity to become acquainted with Kunin’s art, located in the corporate headquarters of Regis, a hair product company that owns Super Cuts. In company offices and halls, some of the most famous American artists "live" with executives and clerical workers alike, who go about their daily routines watched over by and gazing upon Georgia O’Keeffe or Ben Shahn or Robert Henri.

The art of America and the daily life of the nation early in the early 20th century makes perfect sense as the quotidian diet of corporate America and the working men and women of the Heartland. From a vast and extensive collection, Armstrong has selected seventy-six paintings the same way Kunin collected them--by eye.

Kunin began collecting in the Seventies, a decade when painting with content had fallen from favor. By concentrating on figurative and representational art, Kunin has recreated a once-neglected era in American art. The visitor to the museum will find this vast array organized into what Armstrong characterized as rather "flatfooted" themes--"American Moderns," "In the Studio," "Return from Bohemia," etc.--that work well to structure the art. All too often, curators select a theme and then select the art, torqueing the art into an alien situation; but here the themes were generated from the works of art themselves. The first section, "American Moderns," is the story of the assimilation of European art by American artists, how the avant-garde art was grasped by the former colonials and how they put European movements to their own uses, reinterpreting as they went. "American Scene" shows painting, post-assimilation, with American art deeply involved in issues of national identity, while "In the Studio" is more a private as well as a more conventional study of the tradition of painting the nude, American style. As an example of Armstrong’s astute installation, Alexander Brooks’ "Portrait of Raphael Soyer" shows the artist wearing a hat and overcoat, presiding soberly over a room of nakednesss.

Morgan Russell, "Study for
Synchromie en Bleu Violace (Small),"
1913, oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 15".

Arthur Dove, "Moon and Sea II,"
1923, oil on canvas, 24 x 18".

Another notable aspect of the exhibition is who is present and who is absent. George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are nowhere to be seen; and the Ash Can School is represented only by a Henri nude. Although Shahn is present, there are few paintings with overt political content, in spite of the fact that this was a period of war and social unrest. One should not expect this exhibition to be a history of events, but a social history of art at a certain time in a certain place. As such, some of the tensions that we know existed seem like selected omissions. There are two women in the exhibition, O’Keeffe and Alice Neel, and only one man of color, Romare Beardon, demonstrating the obvious fact that American art was exclusionary of women and people of color. But, on the other hand, the exhibition brings artists less well known to the fore, such as George Tooker and Guy Pène de Bois.

The uniformly excellent selections by Armstrong come from a strong collection, and much more was left behind in the Minneapolis offices than could be brought to Orange County. Emerging strongly from a transition period, the museum scored a hit with "Beautiful Losers" last spring, and "Villa America" continues the trend towards notable, unexpected accomplishments.