Like a skater gliding across an icy pond, or someone skipping stones across the waters of a placid lake, "American Treasures" revels in surfaces. It's an exhibition that celebrates sparkling high points, not murky depths.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the Seinfeld gang might put it. The show, after all, gives us Milton Avery, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol, to name just a few.
But where, you might also ask, are Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, or Clyfford Still, to summon another few names from the pantheon?
It's almost as if the 36 works presented here were pulled randomly from a hat — the hat being the Butler Institute of American Art. The Butler Institute, which opened in 1919 in Youngstown, Ohio, was the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art. Considering that the Butler is now home to more than 20,000 works of art, "American Treasures" can't help but seem a most modest sampling.
Once you get past who's included and who's left out, though, the show is frequently exhilarating, especially for anyone who appreciates the primacy of painting. The exhibition gets off to an inauspicious start, with a small, untitled oil painting from around 1953 by Joan Mitchell. It's a fine little abstract, dominated by a few swaths of bold red, by one of the most prominent second-generation abstract expressionists, but it hardly prepares us for the grandeur of much of what soon follows.
Italian Landscape, for instance, is nothing if not grand — a narrative-packed vista by Thomas Cole in which the expansive landscape dwarfs the 18 human figures scattered throughout it. Cole, who was born in England but moved to America when he was 18, is credited as the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, and this landscape from 1839, though set in Europe, shows how he helped redefine American landscape painting.
As thrilling as Cole's canvas is, however, it is almost upstaged a little farther into the show by The Oregon Trail, a magnificent sun-drenched landscape by Albert Bierstadt in 1869. Another European transplant — he was born in Prussia — Bierstadt first ventured into the American West in 1859 as part of an Interior Department survey to find a new wagon route to California. This painting, created the same year the first transcontinental railroad was completed, encapsulates both the artist's own journey and the country's westward expansion, seen as a romantic example of Manifest Destiny.
These two are just high points among the many landscapes included. In contrast with the scale and detail of Cole's and Bierstadt's visions, we get a much more intimate take in Birds of the Bagaduce, an oil-on-board done in 1939 by Marsden Hartley that reduces landscape to a boat-dotted sea under clouds and birds, with a backdrop of distant hills. Ice and Clouds is a similarly elemental landscape by Arthur G. Dove, often considered the first American abstract painter.
The exhibition plunges into the early 20th Century with a shift from rural to urban. Manhattan's Misty Sunset, by the great American impressionist Childe Hassam in 1911, replaces landscape with cityscape, as does 1927's Der Pulverturm ("The Powdertower"), which perfectly sums up Lyonel Feininger's distinctive use of crisp angles and geometric forms. Edward Hopper's charcoal House in Charleston, SC from 1929 takes us from the great American outdoors into an interior more reflective of a state of mind.
It's difficult to make broad statements of a show that steadfastly resists summing up. At various points, a narrative seems to be taking shape, only to be disrupted by the appearance of something like Robert Motherwell's Collage with Ochre, a 1958 work that deconstructs a package salvaged from the mail. And how can such a small sampling of American art hope to establish context for a talent as singular and iconoclastic as Jackson Pollock at the height of his powers in 1950, suggested here by Silver & Black?
Just as landscapes dominate large stretches of the exhibition, there's a section near the end that emphasizes portraits. Thomas Eakins makes his appearance here, with The Coral Necklace, which portrays the Philadelphia sculptor Beatrice Fenton, looking well beyond her 17 years. William McGregor Paxton's Sylvia gives us an unconventionally beautiful woman who looks something like an early-20th-century Helena Bonham Carter.
But once again the flow is interrupted. A large domestic scene painted in 1988 by Janet Fish, Feeding Caitlin, falls uneasily between portraiture and photorealism. The Street, completed in 1957 by Jacob Lawrence (the first black artist added to the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art), injects social realism into the mix. Andy Warhol's Paul Jenkins is, first and foremost, a Warhol.
Better simply to abandon yourself, as I ultimately did, to "American Treasures." As a representative survey of something as sprawling and unruly as American art, it's hopelessly inadequate. As a tentative introduction to its vast subject, it's full of satisfactions big and small.