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Friday, March 29, 2013

Stamp Committee snubs Washington galleries

Gerald Murphy, Razor, 1924, copyright, Honoria Murphy Donnelly/licensed by VAGA and at the Dallas Museum of Art
Of the 12 modern works of art that are reproduced as commemorative stamps released this month by the U.S. Postal Service, none are found in Washington's galleries, although ten of the artists are well represented here, and in some cases, by several hundred pieces.

Five of the twelve works come from New York institutions, and copyright for five others belong to New York firms, making New York the site or copyright owner of almost 90 percent of the compositions.

The stamps were issued in conjunction with the centennial celebration of America's first large display of modern art, known as the “Armory Show,” the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors.

Besides New York, other locations where the 2013 featured works hang are Texas (2), Yale University (1), Colorado (1), Ohio (1), New Mexico (1), and Philadelphia (1).

Three of Washington’s galleries with works by the ten have free admission where thousands may view art:  The National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The Phillips Collection charges $12.

New York admission prices reach $25 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Try getting in the Met without paying the “suggested” price of $25, and see where you land. Try the street.).

Of the remaining locations, only Yale (Joseph Stella) and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth (Aaron Douglas) have free admission.

The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee which selects and approves stamp designs with the approval of the Postal Service, says: "Stamp selections are made with all postal customers in mind, not just stamp collectors." And yet the Committee promoted galleries that cater to more elite purses than many citizens carry.

In addition to Douglas, The Prodigal Son (1927;) and Stella, Brooklyn Bridge (1919-20), the other featured artists and their works are: Stuart Davis, House and Street (1931), Whitney Museum of American Art; Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), the Met; Arthur Dove, Fog Horns (1929), Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), Philadelphia Museum of Art; Marsden Hartley, Painting, Number 5 (1914-15), the Whitney; John Marin, Sunset, Maine Coast (1919), Columbus Museum of Art; Gerald Murphy, Razor (1924), Dallas Museum of Art; Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930), Georgia O'Keeffe Museum; Man Ray, Noire et Blanche (1926), the Met; and Charles Sheeler, American Landscape (1930), Museum of Modern Art.

At the unveiling of the stamps in New York (where else?) Richard Uluski, U.S. Postal Service vice president, Northeast Area Operations said: “We understand the power in these miniature works of art to celebrate American heritage history and culture." The stamps, he said, are "a lasting tribute to 12 amazingly talented artists."

The "most consistent supporter" of Arthur Dove was Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington which has 185 or the majority of Dove's works, according to Wikipedia, and yet, the Committee chose to go to Colorado Springs and its Fine Arts Center for its single Dove painting, Fog Horns, for which a New York firm holds the copyright.

Michael Howell is the collections manager and registrar for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and was unaware the commemorative stamp of Fog Horns had been released until I contacted him.

The two artists missing from the collections of the four Washington institutions I checked are Aaron Douglas and Gerald Murphy. 

Douglas (1899-1979) was "a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance," and sometimes called the father of African American art. He founded the art department at Fisk University where he taught for 27 years. Wikipedia says Douglas was encouraged by his mother to pursue his passion and inspired by the black painter, Henry O. Tanner. Douglas ”refused to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people."

But who is Gerald Murphy? (Howell didn't know, either.)

Not that Gerald Murphy? The husband of Sara Murphy? The good friends of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who played a prominent role in Tender is the Night? That Gerald Murphy? He painted, too?

Well, he painted some, for eight years between 1921 and 1929, before he died in 1964. The Murphys suffered the deaths of their two sons and endured financial problems which may have been factors in Murphy's conclusion of his art output. 

Whatever the case, only 14 of his works are known to have survived, "owing largely to his [Murphy's] own indifference," wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker about a Murphy show at Williams College Museum of Art in 2007. Now, only seven or eight are extant.

"At any rate, it’s unlikely that Gerald, had he continued, would have improved" for whatever he had, he had in the beginning, because "he was a man who wasn't really an artist," Schjeldahl wrote. Murphy and his wife collected folk art.

When the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts announced in 1960 it would host a show of Murphy's works, the artist said, according to Schjeldahl:  "I've been discovered.  What does one wear?"

Gerald Murphy was "amazingly talented"?

Who chose Gerald Murphy's work for the one of the 12 modern art stamps?  And why?

If the Stamp Select Committee were truly honoring “amazingly talented” artists like the postal official said, why didn’t it consider more of the 120 artists from the 1913 Armory show, many who are familiar names, but, rather than art appreciation or recognition, perhaps the Committee meant to educate the people.

The Committee might have chosen, too, more than a single token woman artist (O'Keeffe), like Marguerite Zorach, Marie Laurencin, Ethel Myers, Mary Cassatt, Mary Foote, Grace M. Johnson, Gwen John, Margaret Hoard, Bessie Marsh Brewer, Aileen King Dresser, Edith Dimock, May Wilson Preston, Frances Simpson Steven, Louise Pope, Hilda Ward, Edith Woodman Burroughs, Anne Goldthwaite, Edith Haworth, Florence Dreyfous, and Sherry E. Frye, some of the women who exhibited at the 1913 launch.

Or how about the Murphys' friend, Zelda Fitzgerald? She painted, too. But she was from the South. Two strikes! And where is her copyright?  Three strikes!

A Postal Service website, the USA Philatelic, calls the artists "significant American modernists all of whom were at the forefront of embracing new modes of expression that began in Europe and developed into uniquely American perspectives."

Rather than the "Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee," why not call it what it is: the "Select Stamp Committee."

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