Benjamin West (1738-1820), Penn's Treaty with the Indians, 1771-72, Oil on canvas, 75-1/2 x 107-3/4", Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection), 1878.1.10.

Putting a Face on American Fine Art History for the World

Jeff Koons (b. 1955), Niagara, 2000, Oil on canvas, 120 x 168", Commissioned by the Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, DGT132.2000, © Jeff Koons.

Ralph Earl (1751-1801), Oliver and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth, 1792, Oil on canvas, 76 x 86-3/4 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, Gift of the Heirs, 1903.7.

Thomas Moran, Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah, 1892, Oil on canvas, 112.7 x 97.5 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Bequest of Mrs. Bessie B. Croffut.

Roy Lichtenstein, Grrrrrrrrrrr!!, 1965. Oil and Magna on canvas, 68 x 56 1/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Gift of the artist, 1997 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. 97.4565.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Orange Disaster #5, 1963, Acrylic and silkscreen enamel on canvas, 106 x 81-1/2", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, 1974, 74.2118, © 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York.

John Currin (b. 1962), Thanksgiving, 2003, Oil on canvas, 68-1/8 x 52-1/8, Tate Gallery, London, Lent by American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Marc Jacobs 2004, Photo: Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, New York, © John Currin.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Religion (American Historical Epic, Second Chapter), 1924-27, Oil on canvas, 59-1/4 x 41-1/4", Private collection, © T.H. and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/ Licensed by VAGA, New York.


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Abandoibarra Et. 2
+ 34 944359000
Art in the USA:
300 Years of Innovation

October 11, 2007-April 27, 2008

From portraits of civic leaders and public figures during America’s colonial period to the magnificent wild landscapes of the west, from to the popularity of French Impressionist paintings at the turn of the 20th century to the vibrant age of modernism, from the post-industrial explorations of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art right up to some of the most exciting works made in America today, the wide-ranging scope of the exhibition shows how American culture has constantly modified itself in the course of social development.

The six sections comprising the exhibition mark phases of the country’s development: Colonization and Rebellion (1700-1830), Expansion and Fragmentation (1830-80), Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism (1880-1915), Modernism and Regionalism (1915-45), Prosperity and Disillusionment (1945-80), and Multiculturalism and Globalization (1980–present).

Colonization & Rebellion Paintings produced during America’s colonial period constituted a small percentage of the country’s artistic output. European colonies were established on the fringes of Native American settlements, which had their own art traditions, and the colonies themselves included settlers from Asia and Africa who brought non-European artistic tastes. The arts of this period therefore represented the values of several different cultures. But as the political history of the United States eventually centered on the relationship of the colonies to Great Britain, so too did the art.

However, subtle variations were evident in American art from the beginning. The earliest portraits reflect the Puritan culture of New England, in which a stiff approach to the figure signified the strict moral code of the ideal citizen. By the 18th century, colonial values relaxed, and wealthy Americans, like their European counterparts, sought portraits that displayed their luxurious garments and material possessions. But Americans avoided European symbols of nobility and power, concentrating instead on their accomplishments as merchants and collectors. Portraits of civic leaders and public figures were intended to inspire neither reverence nor awe, but rather national pride and eager citizenship.

Highlights in the exhibition from this period include John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of a Lady in a Blue Dress (1763, Terra Foundation for American Art), Charles Willson Peale’s George Washington (ca. 1780–82, Walton Family Foundation) and Gilbert Stuart’s Munro-Lenox portrait of George Washington (ca. 1800, Judy and Michael Steinhardt). These painters created some of the finest and best-known works of the colonial period.

Expansion & Fragmentation The necessity of developing a national identity after the Revolutionary War (1775–83) encouraged the citizens of the newly formed country to discuss what it meant to be an American. By the 1820s, paintings that described contemporary life and landscapes offered American artists a vehicle to illustrate the belief that their citizens were exceptional by virtue of personal and economic freedoms.

Genre paintings celebrated the common person and the commonplace in a democratic milieu. These works amused or provoked nods of recognition from viewers who saw themselves or their neighbors reflected in anecdotal scenes of daily life. As such, genre paintings aided in developing a national consciousness among the country’s disparate people. Landscape paintings, depicting the unspoiled wilderness and seemingly limitless expanse of a virgin continent, symbolized the nation's potential for greatness. By mid-century, Manifest Destiny — the divinely sanctioned, westward spread of democracy and freedom — legitimatized for most Americans the expansion of their population across the continent.

The works in this section emphasize all of these developments, provide insights into the evolution and upheavals of this period, and document the diversity of America’s natural landscape. Highlights include Edward Hicks’s A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners (1829 or 1830, Terra Foundation for American Art), Henry Inman’s Yoholo-Micco (1832–33, High Museum of Art, Atlanta), Winslow Homer’s Home, Sweet Home (ca. 1863, National Gallery of Art, Washington), Albert Bierstadt’s Sierra Nevada (ca. 1871, Reynold House Museum of American Art), George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen (1877-78, Terra Foundation for American Art), Thomas Moran’s Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah (1892, Smithsonian American Art Museum).

Cosmopolitanism & Nationalism American art at the turn of the 20th century reflected the challenges facing a country taking its place on the world stage. The nation’s new wealth allowed individual artists and collectors to make their mark abroad, thus displaying a truly cosmopolitan outlook. Concurrently, massive immigration to America from all corners of the globe dispelled the United States’ identity as a British colony and made cities such as New York more international than any other.

This was the era of the steamship, which brought America and its art within easy reach of the world community and the mix of global modernism. The popularity of Impressionism was spurred by the many American artists working in Paris, and by the flow of French Impressionist paintings into American collections. The country's most successful painter, Mary Cassatt, became an important member of the modern Impressionist group of painters in Paris.

Other new technologies, particularly photography, also had a powerful effect on American artists, reflected in approaches to urban subjects. Rather than colorful Impressionist cityviews, painters of the Ash Can style sought a pulsating image of the city of commerce. Acutely aware of international modernist trends, these painters believed in their own interpretation of modern art.

Highlights in this section are Mary Cassatt’s Summertime (1894, Terra Foundation for American Art), John Singer Sargent’s An Interior in Venice (1898, Royal Academy of Arts, London), Thomas Eakins’s Wrestlers (1899, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Robert Henri’s Salome (1909, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art), and John Sloan’s Backyards, Greenwich Village (1914, Whitney Museum of American Art).

Modernism & Regionalism In an era of political foment between the two wars, the struggle of American artists to confront the complexities of their age contributed to one of the most diverse and contradictory periods of American art. The Great Depression of the 1930s ended the exuberant Jazz Age and threw cultural life into turmoil. Many artists, previously pursuing abstraction, shifted attention from aesthetic concerns to proclamations aimed at political and social injustice (Social Realism), or imagery of regional America (Regionalism). Regionalist artists described the United States as a nation of plain folk and distinct geographical areas.They demonstrated that artists could be independent of New York. New York artists, on the other hand, sought artistic innovation from the natural world as well as the geometry of architectural spaces in abstracted forms.

Marsden Hartley, one of America’s most significant early modernists, Ralston Crawford (Precisionism), fascinated by America’s industrial landscape, and Thomas Hart Benton, the best-known artist of the Regionalist Movement, are some of the highlights of this period, as well as Edward Hopper’s Girl at a Sewing Machine (1921-22, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza) and Jackson Pollock’s The Moon-Woman (1942, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice).

Prosperity & Disillusionment A deep ambivalence characterized post-World War II America. Despite a triumphant recovery from the economic depression of the 1930s, anxiety about the return of hard times persisted. While booming suburbs offered new-found security, countercultures arose to challenge the status quo. The optimism created by post-war prosperity was tempered by the fear of atomic war. The development of Abstract Expressionism coincided with America’s emergence as an international superpower. Breaking away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter, this new work commented on individual psyches. The creative process now became paramount as these artists manoeuvred with great spontaneity and improvisation across monumentally scaled canvases. Resisting stylistic categorization, the work of painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko can be loosely identified by a highly abstracted mode with an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture or a reflective, cerebral focus on open fields of color.

The 1960s continued to witness dramatic changes in American art as both Pop Art and Minimalism shared the attentions of the art world. Pop Artists including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist took inspiration from advertising, billboards, movies and television, and consumer product packaging. Their images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and critique of popular culture.

In contrast to the fascination with consumer society Pop artists espoused, Minimalists privileged concept over material and ideas over sensory qualities, often favoring sculpture over painting and pursuing possibilities between and beyond these categories. A number of artists — Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Ellsworth Kelly rejected painting as inherently illusionistic, and turned to producing objects and structures that, while three-dimensional, refuse to conform to traditional definitions of sculpture.

Among the many highlights presented in this section are Willem de Kooning’s Composition (1955, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life # 33 (1963, Mugrabi Collection), Andy Warhol’s One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns (1979, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao), and Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes with Beach Ball (1994, Private collection).

Multiculturalism & Globalization Since 1980, artists in the United States have engaged the legacies of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art, performance, and video, while pushing these past iconoclasms to greater extremes and more sophisticated manifestations.

Painting in the 1980s experienced a return to figuration that achieved great commercial success, fuelled by the decade’s economic boom, despite charges of regression (Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and David Salle). However a counter narrative to the economically triumphant 80s emerged in the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Robert Gober, whose work addressed the inequalities and social problems, including the era’s newest epidemic HIV/AIDS, that haunted the Reagan years. The diverse practices of contemporary art in America continue to vigorously question, as well as rewrite, the definition of art and its functions, and address the exigencies of today’s society. Highlights from this era include Keith Haring’s Untitled (1982, courtesy Tony Schafrazi Gallery), Eric Fishcl’s Squirt (for Ian Giloth) (1982, Private collection, Switzerland), and David Salle’s Sexual and Professional Jealousy (Tennyson) (1983, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, Finland).

The exhibition of works from the 1990s to the present is organized as a series of monographic rooms featuring Edward Ruscha, Richard Prince, new paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, a selection from John Baldessari’s commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, and installation and video by Bill Viola, Kara Walker, Matthew Barney, and Tom Sachs.

The display is comprised of approximately 200 artworks — with a focus on paintings — and as been assembled with generous loans from major US and European collections. The exhibition is installed on floors one and two of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, creating a composite narrative of the American experience, capturing its myths, dreams, ordeals, and vulnerabilities. Over 300 years of art, Art in the USA traces how American art reflects and has contributed to the nation's complex historical, social, and visual narrative.

The curatorial team of the exhibition was led by Thomas Krens, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and includes Susan Davidson, Senior Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Elizabeth Kennedy, Curator of Collection, Terra Foundation for American Art; and Nancy Mowll Mathews, Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator of 19th and 20th Century Art, Williams College Museum of Art.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Watching the Breakers: A High Sea, 1896, Oil on canvas, 38 x 41", The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, New York.

Dan Flavin (1933-1996), green crossing green (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), 1966, Green fluorescent light, 2- and 4-ft. fixtures; first section: 48 x 240", second section: 24 x 263 3/4", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, 1991, 91.3705, © 2007 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.