(PRINCETON, NJ) -- American art made across four centuries will be the subject of a far-reaching new traveling exhibition organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. Object Lessons in American Art, drawn entirely from the Museum’s venerable collections, presents more than one hundred works of Euro-American, African American, and Native American art, created between the eighteenth century and today, to ask fundamental questions about artistic significance and how meaning changes across time, place, and context.
The exhibition, curated by Karl Kusserow, the Art Museum’s John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, focuses in particular on race, gender, and the environment and will display approximately one hundred artworks in thirty discrete groups, each intended to provoke new considerations and raise timely questions about American history and culture. These juxtapositions serve as “object lessons”—gatherings of tangible artifacts that communicate an embodied idea or an abstract concept—to anchor debates about the country’s complex social, racial, and political history, thereby expanding our ideas about American art history.
“Object Lessons in American Art builds on centuries of collecting at Princeton that continues robustly today to re-examine objects both beloved and little known and, in doing so, affords opportunities to interrogate the American past and present in profoundly relevant ways,” notes James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “It invites the exhibition visitor into an active role in their own meaning-making.”
The exhibition emphasizes how a broad array of artists contended with, sometimes by obscuring, the most pressing issues of their—and our own—time. Included in the exhibition are works by the enslaved potter David Drake, whose craft was a bold statement of resistance, and the artist Frederic Remington, who represented the “Wild West” in ways that stereotyped both white settlers and Native Americans, alongside recent works by contemporary artists such as Rande Cook, Renee Cox, and Titus Kaphar. One section will feature three iconic portraits of George Washington, including one by Rembrandt Peale that lionizes the first American president as a godlike celebrity together with a photograph by Luke C. Dillon of the ruins of the slave quarters at Washington's home, Mount Vernon, to remind us of the complexities of the man and his legacy.
Other artworks will emphasize the central role of women in the history of American culture. Among them is a painting of the poet Annis Boudinot Stockton, one of the first American women to have her work published, and a finely rendered portrait of a “colonial dame” by the early American artist Sarah Perkins. Later works, including paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Grace Hartigan and several works by the anonymous feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, stress how much remains to be done for women to be fully integrated into our understanding of American art and history.
The continuously evolving relationship between American artists and the natural world functions as another of the exhibition’s pillars. While Indigenous American understandings of humanity’s place in nature often emphasize harmony, Euro-Americans have typically stressed human domination and the subjugation of the landscape to the human will. Among the works the exhibition investigates in this light are Fitz Henry Lane’s Ship in Fog, Gloucester Harbor, a seascape depicting the human and natural worlds as irrevocably intermingled, and the collective Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence (2015), for which the group and its collaborators anchored twenty-six balloons decorated with indigenous iconography across a two-mile expanse at the US–Mexico Border to comment on the arbitrary nature of modern geopolitical divisions.
Object Lessons in American Art will unfold across at least three museum venues in 2023 and 2024, including the Georgia Museum of Art, the Florence Griswold Museum, and the Speed Art Museum. A fourth venue is under consideration.
* February 4–May 14, 2023 – Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
* June 3–September 10, 2023 – Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT
* September 29, 2023–January 7, 2024 – Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue distributed by Princeton University Press and edited and with a lead essay by Karl Kusserow, with additional essays by Kirsten Pai Buick (University of New Mexico), Ellery Foutch (Middlebury College), Horace Ballard (Harvard Art Museums), Jeffrey Richmond-Moll (Georgia Art Museum), and Rebecca Zorach (Northwestern University).
Object Lessons in American Art is made possible by the leadership support of the Terra Foundation for American Art. The accompanying publication is made possible by the generous support of Annette Merle-Smith and by additional support from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
With a collecting history that extends back to 1755, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country, featuring collections that have grown to include more than 113,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe. Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum also serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world.
The main Museum building is currently closed for the construction of a bold and welcoming new building, designed by architect Sir David Adjaye and his firm Adjaye Associates, in collaboration with executive architects Cooper Robertson, and slated to open in late 2024.
Art on Hulfish, a gallery project of the Art Museum located at 11 Hulfish Street, is open daily. Art@Bainbridge, a gallery project at 158 Nassau Street, is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission to both galleries is free.
Please visit the Museum’s website for digital access to the collections, a diverse portfolio of programs, and details on visiting our downtown galleries. The Museum Store in Palmer Square, located at 56 Nassau Street in downtown Princeton, is open daily, or shop online at www.princetonmuseumstore.org.
IMAGES: (1) Marsden Hartley (1877–1943; born Lewiston, ME; died Ellsworth, ME), Blue Landscape, 1942. Oil on board; 40.6 × 50.8 cm, 57.8 × 67.9 × 5.7 cm (frame). Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund and Kathleen Compton Sherrerd Fund for Acquisitions in American Art (2015-6679)
(2) Henry Inman (1801–1846; born Utica, NY; died New York, NY), O-Chee-Na-Shink-Kaa, 1832–33. Oil on canvas; 77.5 × 64.8 cm (stretcher), 98.4 × 85.7 × 7 cm (frame). Promised gift from a Private Collection, member of the Class of 1982 (L.2020.1.1)
(3) Minor White (1908–1976; born Minneapolis, MN; died Boston, MA; active Portland, OR, Rochester, NY), Tom Murphy, San Francisco, February 1948. Gelatin silver print; 12 × 9.8 cm (image), 43.2 × 35.6 cm (mat), 12.5 × 10 cm (sheet), 43.8 × 36.2 × 4.8 cm (frame). The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum, bequest of Minor White (x1980-1018)