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Back in Glackens

I went to the Museum of Art (MoA) in Fort Lauderdale expecting to see "Fashion: The Greatest Show on Earth," a multimedia exhibition purporting to examine fashion shows as an art form. Just about every South Florida newspaper, including this one, had the exhibition in its listings, as did the museum's Website.

But upon arrival, I discovered that the show was apparently as flighty and ephemeral as its subject matter. The main upstairs galleries were cordoned off in preparation for another show, leaving me to wonder what had become of "Fashion."

A phone call later, I learned from Glen Miller, MoA's director of marketing and public relations, that the exhibition had been canceled. "It likely will be mounted at another time," Miller says. "But due to budget restraints and difficulty fundraising after September 11, we wanted to do the show justice and have postponed it for a while."

So instead, I took in "The Glackens Collection: Graphics," a show largely drawn from the Museum of Art's vast holdings of American artist William Glackens. MoA takes great pride -- some might say undue pride -- in its Glackens collection, which it touts as the largest in the world, numbering more than 500 pieces bequeathed by the artist's son, Ira, more than a decade ago. The museum even dedicated the bulk of its recent $2.2 million, 10,000-square-foot expansion to a Glackens wing. Most of the money came from the Sansom Foundation, which was founded in 1955 by Ira Glackens and is chaired by MoA trustee Donald Hilker; MoA is the foundation's primary beneficiary.

So who is this Glackens fellow and why all the fuss?

Here goes: William James Glackens was born in Philadelphia in 1870 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1938. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he met and worked with fellow artist Robert Henri. The two later traveled in Europe and were associated with each other for years to come; Henri painted a full-length portrait of Glackens in 1904.

Henri (born Robert Henry Cozad) became a mentor for a group of painters who were dubbed "the Eight" and included Glackens, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. They put together a group show that toured the eastern United States in 1908 -- it was their only show together -- even though they were highly individual artists who had little in common other than a disdain for academic art.

Most of the Eight and several other painters, most notably George Bellows and Edward Hopper, championed an urban realism that prompted one critic to label them, dismissively, the Ashcan School, which emphasized often gritty portrayals of everyday street life. (New York City provided them with abundant raw material for their work.) Glackens eventually moved more toward the techniques and subject matter of the French impressionists -- Renoir was a major influence -- and today is usually referred to as an American impressionist.

Even if Glackens had abandoned painting, he probably would have secured his place in art history with his work on behalf of other artists. In 1910, he helped organize the "Exhibition of Independent Artists"; seven years later, he was elected president of the Society of Independent Artists. It was in early 1913, however, that Glackens and some fellow artists, including the Eight's Davies, made their biggest impact on the art world as organizers of the so-called "Armory Show," held at the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City.

American artists were well-represented in the exhibition, but it was the inclusion of a number of European artists that created a stir. The works of some of them -- including Picasso and Marcel Duchamp -- had never been seen in the United States before, and it quickly became clear that both the public and the press were hardly prepared for the experimental nature of much of this art. Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase provoked a particularly hostile response.

In retrospect, it seems ironic that such relatively conservative artists as Glackens and Davies were responsible for exposing Americans to art more radical than any that had ever been displayed in this country. But as art historian H.H. Arnason points out in his famous A History of Modern Art, the American artists didn't seem influenced, at least initially, by European modernism: "The tradition of realism and impressionism represented by the eight remained a force in American painting until World War II. In fact, social and regional realism dominated the American scene during the 1930s...."

As the MoA collection demonstrates, Glackens, for one, never embraced much of modernism in any significant way. In fact, after the provocative "Armory Show," he went right on illustrating stories for newspapers and such popular mainstream magazines as Collier's and McClure's. The MoA "Graphics" show includes samples of this work, along with other drawings and sketches and a few paintings.

Most of these pieces aren't especially interesting, although a few stand out. A palpable sense of melancholy hangs over Seating at the Plain Deal Table, Her Head Fallen Upon Her Arm, an 1899 gouache that pairs the woman alluded to in the title with a man entering the scene, seemingly startled by whatever it is that has so distressed the woman. And there's a mysterious air of expectancy in Go Let Them In, a 1916 gouache and crayon on paper that features one man sitting hunched over on a bed, a woman with braided hair, and another man standing and shrugging.

One side gallery groups nearly two dozen pieces by some of Glackens's contemporaries, including some by his Eight colleagues Luks, Prendergast, and Sloan. Sloan comes off best, as in the subtly erotic Turning Out the Light, a 1905 etching in which a man settles the pillows on a bed, apparently in anticipation of the woman who is about to join him there.

To get a fuller sense of Glackens's career, you really need to venture into MoA's new William J. Glackens Wing, the contents of which rotate from the large permanent collection. The paintings, almost all of them in oil, are grouped into categories such as "Studio Paintings" and "American and European Landscapes."

"Significant Others and More" includes works by, among others, Glackens's wife, Edith Dimock Glackens, and their daughter, Lenna. Edith destroyed most of her own work after Glackens's death, and Lenna died of tuberculosis when she was 30, although the surreal allegory presented here, The Triumph of Bigotry, hints at an artist of great promise.

As for Glackens's own paintings, one very early piece, Outside the Guttenberg Race Track (1897), is an especially striking slice of urban realism, with its scene of a carousel, carnival tents, a trolley, a horse-drawn buggy, and electrical poles rendered in a murky, near-monochromatic color scheme. Of the later works, such impressionist landscapes as Bay Shore (1931) and Rockport, Massachusetts (1936) far outshine the mostly ordinary portraits.

Indeed, an overview of Glackens's career makes it clear that his primary achievements as a painter are in the realm of American impressionism. In a picture called Home in New Hampshire, for instance, painted around 1919, Glackens's vivid, feathery brushwork even out-Renoirs Renoir. That's certainly an accomplishment, although a modest one, for a minor but noteworthy artist -- but whether Glackens's work merits its own museum wing is open to debate.

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Michael Mills

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