On Collecting (Part II: America)

by Susan Tallman

July 2017

“We shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop predicted in 1630, standing on the deck of a ship bound for the new world. “The eyes of all people are upon us." While the Puritan colonists Winthrop led may have had little use for visual art, visibility was, from the start, a pillar of American aspirations.

This issue of Art in Print continues our consideration of print collecting and collections that occupied the May–June issue, but this time with a specific focus on the United States. The articles here do not reach as far back as Winthrop, but they do stretch from the mid-19th century to the 21st, and from a Shaker village in New England to the southern plains of Texas. They document American cosmopolitanism (that Shaker village was home to Jean Brown’s remarkable collection of Fluxus and Surrealist art, detailed by Marcia Reed), and American myopia (as Peter Briggs explains, the Artist Printmaker Research Collection at Texas Tech University exists to provide an archive of art and artists about which most of country knows nothing). They consider a time when American artists constituted an intimate community (as Sara Woodbury explains in her discussions of etchings inscribed by B.O. Nordfeldt to Bertha Jaques), as well as the decades in which the American artists became a global force that redefined what art is and does, largely through the medium of prints (the focus of the British Museum’s vast “American Dream” exhibition, reviewed here by Paul Coldwell).

This issue’s winner of the Prix de Print, Stacey Steers’s Vital Signs (2017), selected by Roni Feinstein, reminds us of perhaps the greatest value of collections—their function as fodder in the creation of new ideas and images. Steers is a filmmaker, and her lithograph derives from an animation she built from intricately collaged snippets of old wood engravings and silent film clips. As in physics, origin and trajectory matter.

Above all, these essays reveal the endless striving of American artists and collectors to make art visible. A key supporting role in the story of the 19th-century engraver James Smillie, the subject of Andrew Raftery’s study, was played by the American Art-Union, a short-lived organization that attempted to bring important prints and paintings to New York audiences three decades before the founding of the Metropolitan Museum. Theresa Engelbrecht charts how, two generations later, artists and patrons in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia used print clubs to support artists and museums at the same time. And, in an interview with the Metropolitan’s Jennifer Farrell, collector Jordan Schnitzer talks about the mission of his family foundation to bring important contemporary art to museums and educational institutions around the country, from Bozeman to Jacksonville to Wichita.

At the same time, the porousness of American borders—always the nation’s greatest strength—is strongly in evidence in articles that focus on individuals rather than collections. Martin Puryear, whose print and drawing retrospective is reviewed here by Danielle O'Steen, was born in Washington D.C., worked in Sierra Leone, studied in Stockholm, and draws on source material from Central Africa and Revolutionary France. The artist Bolton Brown is shown by John Murphy to have been a compelling artist and athlete, who, after conquering the Sierras as a mountaineer in the late 19th century, left for England at the age of 50 to train as a lithographer, then returned to New York State to make some of the greatest American prints of the first half of the 20th century. Brown’s story finds a kind of counterpart in that of Michael Woolworth, a New Englander a century younger than Brown, who went to Paris to train as a lithographer and, as Kate McCrickard explains in her review of his career retrospective, stayed on to make some of the great European prints of the 21st century.

To a degree and in ways Winthrop could not have imagined, America has indeed become a city upon a hill, and the eyes of all people are undoubtedly upon us, though it may be more like rubbernecking at the site of an spectacular car crash than the salutary regard Winthrop hoped for. But the America that appears in this issue isn’t a fortress, it’s a marketplace—a locus of exchange and invention, a place where things are collected and distributed and used to make other, new things. It is a city with a view to another hill that’s even higher, a mountain where there is no city—just a vision. Bolton Brown named a peak in the Sierras for the British art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. There is also one named for Bolton Brown.