Stella Cretek

Knock out

By - Mar 3rd, 2008 02:52 pm
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The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library
Milwaukee Art Museum
Koss Gallery
Now – March 23
200803_art_dempseyfifoThe Milwaukee Art Museum’s spin for the George Bellows exhibition (now- March 23) goes like this: special rare drawings and lithographs, important chronicler of American life in the early twentieth century, highlights include scenes of boxing, racetracks and the glory of rabble-rousing preacher Billy Sunday.

I was intrigued enough to visit the Koss Gallery, but not because of any touted aspects of the exhibition: in the ‘40s, I watched my dad enjoy boxing matches on television, and later, when we moved to Kansas City, he invited me out to watch the regional Golden Gloves boxing matches. I guess he thought it was a good way to bond (plus the Moriarty clan lays claim to John L. Sullivan, a shirt-tail relative from our Irish past). It was surreal to watch the sweat fly and blood splat near our ringside seats in a smoke-filled arena mostly populated by men. As years passed, I found myself fascinated by Body and Soul and Raging Bull. When Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite American writers, penned On Boxing in 1994, I learned that she and her dad had attended a 1950s Golden Gloves match, too.

I’m also fascinated with old-time evangelical preachers, having seen them scream and shout in tents set up in my small Iowa hometown. Elmer Gantry, a movie I re-visit at least once a year, is based on preacher Billy Sunday, who is prominently figured in the works of George Bellows.

Bellows’ (1882-1925) focus is primarily power, be it religious, political or athletic in nature. Prior to studying art, he was a star athlete in college where his discipline likely gave him a competitive edge in the art world. In this dark and gritty, near-hysterical political year of 2008, his change! change! change! artist/anarchist message rings familiar. I have a sneaking suspicion that the artist deemed the American masses as sheep in need of a shepherd and figured he might as well be it.

The Koss Gallery is crowded with the artist’s work (smartly coordinated at MAM by Mary Weaver Chapin, assistant curator of prints and drawings), but the intimate space helps viewers focus on the cramped turbulence of the American city. The detailed drawings and lithographs remind me of pages in a historical novel punctuated with black and white images, though there is one colorful oil painting from 1916, “The Sawdust Trail.” It is the “star” of the Koss’ central gallery, but it is certainly not the prime example of images depicting Billy Sunday. Compared with the seven images surrounding it, the oil seems ham-fisted and blowsy. Bellows considered Sunday, an athlete who played with the Chicago White Stockings, the “worst thing that ever happened to America,” so perhaps the artist saw himself as a kind of “art evangelist.” Late in his career, he turned to lucrative portrait work (some of it is included in the exhibition) and seascapes; his concern for the masses seems to fade as his career escalates and the money pot fattens.

A splendid section labeled “Athletics” deals primarily with boxing. The 1923-24 lithograph “Dempsey & Firpo” exudes power of man vs. man, but “Preliminaries” (Spring 1916), a lyrical drawing in crayon with washes of black ink loosely applied with a brush, says more while saying less. As the title suggests, it is unfinished, a preamble to a completed work nearby, which gives viewers a prime opportunity to compare and contrast. In the lower right-hand corner are elements of pure abstraction; they intimate that Bellows could have been a successful abstract expressionist, albeit one ahead of his time.

200803_art_standingnudeInitially, I thought the show would explode with testosterone, and while there is plenty of that (macho men carrying women fainted-dead-away at the sight of Billy Sunday!), there is tenderness enough to lend balance: “Standing Nude Bending Forward” (1916), an elegant lithograph, and “Two Girls,” a 1917 lithograph, are solid examples that line rules, no matter the message.

On a wall outside of the Koss is an informative grouping of prints and drawings by members of The Eight, artists who worked during the same time as George Bellows. If you visit the contemporary galleries one floor below, be sure and stop by the gallery featuring additional works by The Eight. Don’t stop there. Walk into Gallery 12 (German Expressionism) and think about Bellows while studying the bronze Figurez Hulantes (“War”) sculpted by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle. Move on to Auguste Rodin’s “Monumental Head of Balzac.” Am I stretching the point? No. Sculptors aren’t necessarily any more powerful than those who hold a brush, wield a camera, or produce paintings or drawings. Great art starts with a blank and develops with line shaped by a critical mind.

Students of Art History should be required to pair the Bellows exhibition with “William Hogarth: British Satirical Prints” at the Haggerty Museum of Art. These two artists have much in common, even though they worked on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean and were divided by several centuries. I urge you to expand your art experiences before both close on March 23. VS

Ed. note: Since the writing of this piece, the rotation outside the Bellows exhibition has changed, and now features master prints and recent acquisitions of modern woodcuts by artists including Henri Rivière, Erich Heckel, Max Weber, Carl Moser, and Martin Puryear, through May 13.

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