Ever since "Diana: A Celebration" and "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" brought it back from the brink, the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale has struggled against the perception that it has become an institution of artifacts. Even an exhibition of paintings as electrifying as those in "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" had a hard time rehabilitating that image in light of a string of heavily hyped, object-based shows, featuring everything from Holy Land artifacts and contemporary furniture to Alabama quilts and the flamboyant interior designs of Dorothy Draper. The museum, many people lamented, had become a place to go to look at things. Some of the things were well worth marveling at, but that's another story.
The recent multimedia extravaganza "Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art" went a long way toward correcting the situation. The current "Pablo Picasso Ceramics/Carlos Luna Paintings" goes further — even though, somewhat ironically, it combines the oh-so-painterly work of Luna with the museum's most celebrated set of objects, the Bernie Bercuson collection of Picasso ceramics.
Now, "Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s-1950s" arrives, as triumphant a return to fine-arts form for the museum as the Diana and Tut shows were a departure from it. This is an exhibition that fairly sings the praises of painting and, to a lesser extent, sculpture. (The nine sculptures in the show, although some of them are very good indeed, have the feel of filler.)
The sculptures and the 60-plus paintings come from the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. The Addison opened on the campus of Phillips Academy in 1931, and in just over 20 years, according to the preface to the exhibition catalog by William C. Agee, the gallery "could present the best condensed history of American art in the country."
Condensed is a crucial word here, at least as applies to this exhibition. Early on, the Addison collection included the work of such important figures as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Josef Albers, and Jackson Pollock — most represented by just one work each, with Homer and Eakins each rating two. In that sense, the show is something of an elaborate tease, trotting out one exquisite painting after another only to remind us, finally, that if we want more, we must look elsewhere.
That's only a quibble, however, with an exhibition that serves up so much pleasure. The going is good from the start, where we get a handful of canvases from the mid-1800s as reminders that there's nothing quite like an old-fashioned landscape. Whether it's Fitz Hugh Lane's luminous Fishing Boats at Low Tide, Albert Bierstadt's looming The Coming Storm, or Frederic Edwin Church's majestic Mount Katahdin, the implications are clear — American artists are quite up to the challenge of making the great tradition of European landscape painting their own. These are quietly confident works that bode well for American art in the latter half of the 19th Century.
In fact, the first third or so of the show is a clear affirmation of American mastery of inherited traditions. The high points come fast and furious: Thomas Eakins' ease with the drawing room (Elizabeth at the Piano) and the boxing arena (the dazzling Salutat); Winslow Homer's assertion, with the maritime grit of Eight Bells, that painting has not so much to do with conventional beauty as with elemental boldness; the deft formalism of expatriate James McNeill Whistler's Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.
As the exhibition moves into the early 20th Century, modernism shows up not as a big seismic eruption but as a series of small, sometimes barely perceptible shifts. It's there in the impressionist approach that Childe Hassam takes to his urban American subject matter in Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917, and it's there in the geometric maneuverings of Edward Hopper's Manhattan Bridge Loop, more than a decade later. It's certainly there, much more dramatically, in the cool abstraction of Georgia O'Keeffe's Wave, Night.
Like the art itself, the exhibition skitters uneasily in many directions through these middle passages as if trying to navigate the sudden proliferation of aesthetic possibilities. By the time we reach the final gallery, it's like stumbling into another show altogether, so drastic are the dislocations — a Joseph Cornell box here, an Alexander Calder mobile there, to mention only a couple of the avenues modernism ventures down. There's the nagging sense of having lost something, perhaps, of having left something behind, definitely, but there's also a bracing energy in this last section that can move you in wildly different ways. If you're of a mind, say, that modernism just might be one big mistake, then that energy may strike terror in your heart.
But if you can stand in front of Jackson Pollock's Phosphorescence, for example, and marvel at what has been unleashed — the liberation of painting to pursue something other than realistic representation — then that energy is more likely to prompt exhilaration than dismay. Such freedom manifests itself equally in Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting, Red, with its barely differentiated squares and rectangles, and in Franz Kline's Abstract, with its jumble of jagged forms resolutely refusing to be about anything other than themselves.
A friend who had felt much more at home among those reassuringly realistic landscapes earlier in the exhibition wondered if maybe, just maybe, I might venture a guess at what abstract art is all about. But by the time I got to Phosphorescence — as fresh and pristine as when Pollock painted it in 1947 — by the time I felt all ready to tell him that abstract art is first and foremost about its creator and its own creation, he had already moved on to the Picasso/Luna show upstairs. That's OK, I reasoned; "Coming of Age" had already given him a crash course in a century of American painting. How could I top that?