Two new exhibits launched in February at the Montclair Art Museum, which is reopened to the public in a limited fashion due to the pandemic. “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” is an especially timely exhibit that reimagines the iconic work of Norman Rockwell through the eyes of modern America. Meanwhile, “New York To New Mexico: New Acquisitions” spotlights some of the museum’s acquisitions of American and Native American art in the past few years.
Montclair Art Museum is currently open Fridays through Sundays (a slight change from their pre-pandemic Wednesdays through Sundays schedule), visitors must wear a mask at all times and will have their temperatures checked upon arrival. The biggest change is that one-hour timed tickets must be purchased online and be reserved prior to your visit. This setup offers a wonderful opportunity to visit the museum in a very comfortable and socially distanced viewing experience.
One thing regular visitors to the museum website will notice is the addition of interactivity and videos. The pandemic led the museum to move its programs to Zoom and brought on the introduction of videos presenting artist spotlights and mini-tours led by museum curators, and the MAM Conversations series. Members of the museum are able to view additional exclusive content as well.
Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell
When people think of Norman Rockwell, nostalgic images of America often come to mind. Born and raised in Chicago, Meiners’ carefully constructed photographs rework Rockwell’s familiar imagery to address contemporary issues including racism, sexuality, gender roles, and the impact of technology.
“As a child, I was always intrigued by Norman Rockwell’s prolific cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post,” explained Meiners. “[In this series,] I examine whether the nostalgia of Rockwell’s original works translates into our rapidly changing lifestyles and his human tableaux can reflect this moment of time.”
Rockwell used staged photographs as templates to produce his paintings. Meiners turned that process around by revisiting a Rockwell painting and having the end result be a photograph.
Gail Stavitsky, Chief Curator at Montclair Art Museum, said she had always been interested in doing a show related to Norman Rockwell. She discovered Meiners’ series called “Revisiting Rockwell” one day while searching online and got in contact with the artist. Around the same time, Stavitsky learned there was an opportunity to borrow a few original Rockwell paintings to show along with Meiners’ work.
“I’d have to say there was a lot of serendipity in how timely that show turned out to be,” said Stavitsky. “Even the phrase ‘fragile freedoms,’ which our director Ira Wagner came up with – to think that Joe Biden would use that term in his inauguration speech shows how timely it is.”
The exhibit features 18 photographs by Meiners on display side by side three paintings and illustrations from The Saturday Evening Post by Rockwell. One such piece is “Dream Act,” which shows a young migrant girl in a line with border patrol officers. As with the Rockwell painting that inspired it, “The Problem We All Live With,” the photograph also features a racial slur on the wall. The change in messaging reflects America’s current battle with immigration compared with the Civil Rights movement that inspired Rockwell’s original piece.
In addition, the exhibition includes four photographs from the “For Freedoms” series, an artist-led platform that allows visitors to further compare contemporary interpretations of Rockwell’s themes. Works by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur, in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery, reinterpret Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Fear,” and “Freedom from Want.” The new images present a multicultural and inclusive representation of contemporary America.
“Art can be intimidating, and for many people, Norman Rockwell is a gateway,” said Meiners. “I hope [visitors to the exhibition] will just engage in conversation about the images and their relation to current social issues. Art is a potential platform for change, and I feel I will have done my job if they feel connected.”
The museum hopes the exhibit inspires such conversations and, in fact, has set up a series of signs outside the museum asking people what freedom means to them. The signs are perfect for visitors to snap photos of and share on their Instagram or Facebook feeds.
The other new exhibit highlights a dozen recent acquisitions of American and Native American art into the Montclair Art Museum collection since 2017. Even during the pandemic, the Museum has been able to continue much of their regular business via Zoom, including the acquisition of works to their collection.
“We’re actually acquiring art on a regular basis,” explained Stavitsky. “I thought it was time to have a show of selected works that we’ve acquired either through donations or through purchases over the past three years. It shows the variety of work we collected. This show happens to be a selection of works from 1907 to the present with examples of American, African-American, and Native American art to show how diverse our collection is.”
Some of the works in the exhibit include Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Steerage,” Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero’s “Water Memory”, and Jersey City-based artist Woolpunk’s digital and fiber “Blue Carts & Barbed Wire.”
The exhibit also includes early 20th century works by pioneering modernists A.B. Frost, Jr. and Morton Livingston Schamberg. Photographs of ancient petroglyphs in New Mexico by Salvatore Mancini are complemented by Alaska Native artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ shadow boxes containing a moose jaw and polar bear fur. Other works focus on social issues and concerns, such as Kyle Meyer’s mixed media portrait of a gay man in Swaziland.
In addition to the two new exhibits, the museum also has extended the dates for other exhibits on display. "Virgil Ortiz: Odyssey of the Venutian Soliders" is on display until March 28th; "Undaunted Spirit: Art of Native North America" may be viewed until June 21st; and "Uncaged: Animals in the Collection" and "George Inness: Works in the Collection" will be available until August.
“We were fortunate because the artists whose works were being featured happened to be flexible,” said Stavitsky. “I think everyone has had delays and postponements, so they were able to leave their work up longer. We’re pleased they were able to do that, because we closed in March. So from then to September 12 (when the museum reopened last year), those shows were there and no one had the chance to see them.”
Since its founding in 1914, the Montclair Art Museum’s collection has grown to more than 15,000 works including historic, modern, and contemporary art. Stavitsky believes the museum has an outstanding collection of American and Native American art with the latter including pieces from pre-European contact up to the present.
“I think we have a lot to offer with our collections, our exhibitions, but especially our programs,” adds Stavitsky. “We have really active education programs for toddlers up to senior citizens and also have an art school. We’re quite a resource for the area and we’re so accessible. We’re not such a huge museum that you’d get exhausted visiting like you do at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can easily visit the museum and it’s a very rejuvenating and restorative experience.”
The Montclair Art Museum is located at 3 South Mountain Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey. “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” is on display until June 13, 2021. “New York to New Mexico: New Acquisitions” is on display until August 8, 2021. For more information visit www.montclairartmuseum.org.