Natural Scenery

Frist Art Museum Presents Major Survey of Modern Art Created in the American South

Southern/Modern 
January 26–April 28, 2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Dec. 5, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — The Frist Art Museum presents Southern/Modern, the first comprehensive survey of paintings and works on paper created in the American South between 1913 and 1955 that reflect a period of change and upheaval across the region. Organized by the Mint Museum in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art, the exhibition will be on view in the Frist’s Ingram Gallery from January 26 through April 28, 2024.

Southern/Modern features more than one hundred works by artists such as Carroll Cloar, Aaron Douglas, Caroline Durieux, Will Henry Stevens, Alma Thomas, and others who worked in states below the Mason-Dixon line and as far west as the Mississippi River. It also includes artists from outside the South, such as Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine de Kooning, all of whom spent time at North Carolina’s experimental Black Mountain College, as well as Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, and others whose works reflect on Southern experiences from a distance.

“The exhibition explores the history of socially and stylistically progressive art in the American South,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Treating a subject long neglected by art historians and museums outside the region, Southern/Modern shows how in the South as elsewhere, the goal of modernism was to lead the way toward a more open-minded and equitable society.” To explore this idea, the exhibition curators Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American art at the Mint Museum and Dr. Martha R. Severens, an independent scholar, included important works by women and people of color, with styles ranging from American scene painting and regionalism to cubism and abstraction.

Thematic groupings of works weave together the region’s rich cultures, telling stories of agriculture and industry, class division and racial injustice, natural beauty, and stylistic innovation. The exhibition begins with a section titled “Southerners,” a look into the lives of people engaged in everyday activities—chatting, out for a stroll, or shopping. While challenging stereotypes often ascribed to people from this region, this section does illustrate the racial divide that has marked the South and the nation for centuries, with only a few images showing Black and white people together in the same setting. 

Works in “Landscape as Metaphor” explore the South’s rural and agricultural identity through scenes of natural beauty from the Ozarks to the Carolina low country. Several paintings also feature views of environmental abuse and neglect, the desolate landscape a metaphor for the hardscrabble lives of the people living in these places. For artists in this section, says Scala, the land was not simply defined as topography, but “is a stage for memory, legend, and history. Exemplifying this is Carroll Cloar’s A Story Told by My Mother, illustrating family lore in which a dreamlike landscape is the setting for an encounter between the ethereal figures of a woman and a panther.”

“Religion and Ritual” includes several works visualizing the cohering power of faith in Black communities. Several artists were inspired to depict Black spirituals in works such as John McCrady’s version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Malvin Gray Johnson’s Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Artists in the section “Segregation and Jim Crow” portray a darker side of Black experience in the South, creating powerful indictments of segregation in public life, on the beach, in the military, and in the town square. References to racial violence include Loïs Mailou Jones’s powerful portrait Mob Victim (Meditation) and Eldzier Cortor’s devastating painting Southern Souvenir, representing two fragmented Black bodies as if they were shattered statuary.

Laborers—farmers, coal miners, fishermen, and factory workers—are spotlighted in the next section. During the Great Depression, many artists sought to bring the dire conditions of the working poor to wider public attention, as seen in Thomas Hart Benton’s Ploughing it Under and John Biggers’s drawing The Harvesters. Other works depict the effects of industrialization in cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, as tenant farmers frequently moved there seeking better working conditions only to be trapped in industries that had moved south in search of cheap labor. Yet, the period covered by the exhibition saw tremendous growth in the region’s economy and a dramatic expansion of its cities leading to a revitalization that continues unabated today in places like Nashville.

The final two sections, “Planting New Seeds: Colonies and Schools” and “Many Modernisms,” feature works that are more abstract by artists from outside the South or Southerners who had gone to cities like New York and Paris to learn about new movements and experience firsthand the works of luminaries such as Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Several artists in this section traveled south to teach at schools like the University of Georgia, Richmond Polytechnic Institute, and most notably Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, which boasted an international faculty and was lauded for its interdisciplinary approach to modern practices.

Full of vibrant, often emotionally charged works, Southern/Modern shows how in the South, as elsewhere, modern artists linked social and aesthetic progress, hoping to change the way people saw their world. Scala writes, “While the paintings in the exhibition’s last sections reflect aspects of the region, their subjects are often so generalized that they could be from anywhere—modernism in the South was truly a part of an international phenomenon. Yet, what distinguishes the art of this region from other modernisms is the story that it tells of a transformative period in America’s cultural identity. How does progressive art, which for many people symbolized the nation’s trajectory toward modernization, survive and even thrive in a part of the country known for its resistance to change?”

Exhibition Credit

Southern/Modern is organized by The Mint Museum in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art. Lead support is generously provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional funding comes from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Southern/Modern was also made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alfred and Betsy Brand Fund at The Mint Museum.

Supporter Acknowledgment

Platinum Sponsor: HCA Healthcare/TriStar Health

Supported in part by the Frist Art Museum’s 2024 Gala patrons

The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by The Frist Foundation, Metro Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connect with us @FristArtMuseum #TheFrist

About the Frist Art Museum
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Art Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Art Museum offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. Information on accessibility can be found at FristArtMuseum.org/accessibility. Gallery admission is free for visitors ages 18 and younger and for members, and $15 for adults. For current hours and additional information, visit FristArtMuseum.org or call 615.244.3340.

SOURCE Frist Art Museum




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