Washington D.C.

“Advancing American Art”

National Museum Of American Art

In 1945, J. LeRoy Davidson, who was the former assistant director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was asked by the State Department to guide its youthful art program. There he organized a State Department-sponsored exhibition, “Advancing American Art.” The show was to tour Europe, beginning in 1946, while a second segment of it would travel in Latin America. Davidson not only chose the artists but also convinced the State Department to buy the paintings and watercolors in the show at a reduced price; his argument—and it was a legitimate one—was that the tour would last at least two years, and few would be likely to lend work for such a protracted period. Among the artists Davidson chose were John Marin, Ben Shahn, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jack Levine, Charles Burchfield, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and George L.K. Morris. Clearly, he made a serious attempt to pick a broad, representative range of modern American art; the only prejudice his choices demonstrated was the absence of nonobjective abstraction, and this absence was a matter less of Davidson’s esthetics than of pragmatic compromise.

Enormous public controversy caused “Advancing American Art” to be canceled shortly after it began its tour. According to both Margaret Lynne Ausfeld and Virginia M. Mecklenburg, authors of the well-researched, informative catalogue essays accompanying this recent reassembly of the 1946 show, Davidson made a critical miscalculation when he convinced the State Department to buy the art. This use of taxpayer’s money allowed everyone, including President Harry S Truman, to suddenly consider themselves qualified art critics. Truman’s response was typical: about Kuniyoshi’s Circus Girl Resting, n.d., he said, “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.” (No one saw fit to point out a possible connection between Truman’s response and the fact that Kuniyoshi was born in Japan.) The right-wing Hearst newspaper chain did everything in its power to produce a negative public response, and Look Magazine went even further: the headline of their article on the show was, “Your Money Bought These Paintings.” Embarrassed by it all, the State Department canceled the tour, and the War Assets Administration auctioned the work off.

Because Davidson was extremely limited in his budget, many of the paintings in the exhibition are minor. Ben-Zion’s Perpetual Destroyer, n.d., could be seen as prefiguring the late paintings of Philip Guston (who was also included in the exhibition), but while this was intriguing, it would be foolish to make too much of it. Clearly the point of the reassembly of the exhibition was not the paintings, but the response they engendered. Politics and esthetics seldom mix, and this timely show was a clear-sighted demonstration of the unbridgeable chasm between public acceptance and the artist’s belief in creative freedom. It is a cautionary tale. The biggest mistake one could make would be to think the exhibition’s fate represents a closed chapter.

John Yau