'Southern/Modern': Rediscovering the radical art below the Mason-Dixon Line

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'Southern/Modern': Rediscovering the radical art below the Mason-Dixon Line
The traveling exhibition “Southern/Modern” tells an important story that has been largely absent from American art history.

by Walker Mimms

ATHENS, GA.- Of the many strengths of “Southern/Modern,” a daring and revisionist show about the American South at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, the one that follows you out to your car is the alternate history of modern art it proposes.

Southern art — or food or literature, for that matter — has long suffered a reputation of isolation. “You cant understand it. You would have to be born there,” says the tortured Quentin in William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” Ninety years later, Southern exceptionalism is over (mostly), and the area’s artists and curators and chefs now go to great, overcorrective lengths to be global, to be modern. But the artists of Faulkner’s day — they were still responding to an ancient, haunted South. Their audience was stationary, and their language local. They were regionalists. Or so the story goes.

Not here. These 100 or so paintings and prints suggest an invigorating direction that was there all along: a pungent pairing of social history with artistic experiment during the first half of the 20th century. By bringing together professional artists who worked below the Mason-Dixon Line (exempting Florida) between 1913 and 1956, and as far west as Arkansas and Missouri, “Southern/Modern” surveys the riches of a stylistic evolution you will find at, say, the Museum of Modern Art in New York — the Impressionism that loosened up the 1900s, the Cubism of the 1910s, the Surrealism of the ’20s, the modeled social realism of the ’30s, the feral abstractions of the ’40s and ’50s — as told by a region often buried in the art history books.

Among its big, engrossing canvases by astute social observers like George Biddle (the architect of the New Deal’s Federal Artist Project, which gave many of these artists work during the Depression) and Lamar Dodd (a founding father of art education in Georgia), we find a moving imitation of Monet by the Alabama painting teacher and leader of the Dixie Art Colony, John Kelly Fitzpatrick.

The lobes of cyan and mud-green in Fitzpatrick’s “Negro Baptising” (1930) jelly into a sunny riverbend. Two parishioners are about to be dunked. In the distance, further stripes of paint indicate hundreds of Black spectators on the bank — none personalized but each a person. Around them all, a tall bridge traces the inner margins of the canvas, with the piers of the bridge at right and its guard rail running along the top. It’s a framing device George Bellows and other urbans employed to remind us where we, the viewers, stand — that is, outside the action. But in Fitzpatrick’s pastoral setting, the bridge illuminates our subject: A maligned community, in other words, will baptize wherever it must, even under the irksome wagon-clack of overhead traffic.

Curated by Martha R. Severens (formerly of the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina) and Jonathan Stuhlman (of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina), “Southern/Modern” broadcasts the latest trends in the presentation of Southern art, such as you’ll find in the richly contextualized American sections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the Georgia Museum’s own permanent collection. In this telling, art is a global and porous affair. And far-flung provinces serve as entrepôts to and from the vanguard — not just detours to be “represented” like Nashville hot chicken in the flavor portfolio of Pringles.

Black artists — and not just subjects — share half the stage, for instance. Take Hale Woodruff, a Nashville, Tennessee, resident who studied Picasso in 1920s Paris and learned muralism under Diego Rivera in Mexico. Only the Depression could have brought the painter back stateside, reluctantly, where he taught in Georgia and, on a Rosenwald grant for Black students, studied soil degradation.

In “Southland” (1936), one fruit of this labor, Woodruff arranges a rural hillside into a stressful, almost Cubist pyramid: at top are the ruins of an old manor house, at right a wasted shack, with dead stumps and tree trunks lying around. After centuries of enslavement, and now sharecropping, King Cotton had sucked the land dry. But Woodruff renders the actual painted earth in tones of salmon and sherbet — singing, iridescent hues that negate all the death. It’s a Rorschach test: do you see a wasteland, or a vibrant painterly possibility?

By the 1930s, federal initiatives like the Tennessee Valley Authority promised development in the South. For locals, the question became how much new pavement and electricity could be borne by their culture, by their “ma’ams” and “sirs,” their gentility, their neighborly warmth. At Vanderbilt University a group of romantic-minded poets, calling themselves the Agrarians, protested “the gospel of Progress” in a 1930 manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand.” Robert Penn Warren, age 25, wrote an essay for the book, suggesting Black people form their own agrarian state — a defense of segregation he would spend the rest of his life atoning for.

Less famously, visual artists amplified this fear of advancement. See the sterilized surrealism of Virginian painter Jewett Campbell, where skyscrapers spring from the natural environment. Or the watercolor satire of Homer Ellertson: in his suavely executed “Dean House, Spartanburg, S.C.” (circa 1932), a Goodyear service station has set up shop in the front yard of a plantation home. The sepia tone of this work feels retrofuturist, as if we’re glimpsing some coming destiny from an even later date.

More than Agrarian conservatism, though, the painters in this show echo what the historian C. Vann Woodward later called the “irony of Southern history”: the fact that, as America dominated the global stage from the Monroe Doctrine to World War II, the southeastern quadrant of the country persisted in a long line of self-destructive, embarrassing regressions, from a feudal regime to a secession attempt to an apartheid state.

Hatred of that history seems to have driven the Virginia-born painter Robert Gwathmey to adopt a style somewhere between primitivism and the illustrated wartime poster. In the ropy, segmented outlines and loud, flat colors of his “Sunny South” (1944), an angry piece of agitprop on loan from a private collection, workers hunch wearily with their sacks of cotton in an empty field. At left and right, an old plantation and a modern factory straddle the scene. It is an allegory of pre- and post-Emancipation, with little in visible difference for the working class. At center, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy gather around a statue of their departed hero, Robert E. Lee.

Every exhibition argues something by virtue of its parameters, and the dates at play here remind us that the triumph of American art — the seminal Armory show of 1913 to the death of Jackson Pollock in 1956 — took place alongside the rise of civil rights in modern political discourse.

In “When the Klan Passes By” (circa 1939), Howard University painter James A. Porter uses dark but thin brushloads to convey, through the averted eyes of the Black family in the foreground, the private consequences of race terrorism. (If the dumpy Klan cartoons in Philip Guston’s current retrospective deserve a trigger warning, Porter’s ice-bath of domestic fear needs a trigger embargo.) Unlike Porter, Gwathmey’s allegory of race, with his setting like Monopoly houses, is an imagined, didactic one: His laborers come in all skin tones, arguing that the old plantocracy divided the classes for many years to come, dooming poor whites as well as Blacks.

This is a model exhibition: a targeted provincial study of the innovations we too often associate with Paris and New York. It will be relevant to the many Northern institutions that house these artists (several appear in the Met’s current collection show on the Depression, “Art for the Millions”). A few blue-chip artists (Zelda Fitzgerald, Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence) fit comfortably among fascinating lesser-knowns. Last fall in Los Angeles, I saw (and loved) a similar survey of Korean art. Now I want one on the Rust Belt, Canada, North Africa, India. What did “modern” mean to the rest of the world?

In January, “Southern/Modern” will travel to Nashville (a city whose controversial gentrification will let these pictures really talk), then to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Memphis, Tennessee. But no farther north. Which is a shame, because New York’s influence on the South was not only direct and palpable, as the exhibition persuasively argues, but also reciprocal, which the show does less to explore: At Cooper Union in the late ’40s, Gwathmey taught the future Pop star Alex Katz. From his new post at New York University in the 1950s, escaping the South once again, Woodruff became a rare Abstract Expressionist of African descent. To the Big Apple, graduates of Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, returned like winged pollinators to a hive. (Representing the Black Mountain contingent here is an early jigsaw-paned composition by one graduate, Elaine de Kooning, and a geometric abstraction by her instructor Josef Albers, a German refugee from fascism.)

The loosey-goosey 1950s close the show, and though de Kooning is name-brand avant-garde, it was a new abstractionist (new to this reviewer, at least) who really grabbed me. After the war, the printmaker Caroline Durieux, neighbor to Faulkner in New Orleans, sourced isotopes from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where the uranium was enriched to level Hiroshima. With scientists, Durieux developed radioactive inks that would stay active for 25,000 years.

One of Durieux’s electron prints, “Carnival, Circus, or Green Abstraction” (1956), a beguiling centrifugal arrangement of ripples and flakes in hot primary colors, toured Berlin, India and Pakistan in a group show called “The Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.” If that exhibition was some big act of Cold War propaganda, I don’t care. It came as welcome relief, after our summer of “Oppenheimer,” to find such invention and such buoyancy in yet another Southern darkness.


Through Dec. 10, Georgia Museum of Art, 90 Carlton Street, Athens, Georgia, (706) 542-4662; georgiamuseum.org. The show will travel to the Frist Art Museum (Jan. 26, 2024, through April 28), 919 Broadway, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 244-3340; fristartmuseum.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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