One of the first questions that people ask me when they learn we’re building a new museum is, “does your collection have a particular focus?” It’s a question with several different answers. We’re a teaching museum, so we’re trying to build a collection that is wide-ranging enough to speak to students across the university, whether they are studying fashion, history, graphic design, or studio art. But we do also have areas of strength in the collection that merit special attention and development. Some, like our collection of African art, are very new and the result of a handful of major gifts. Others have developed over decades, without curatorial intent or the influence of a single donor. Our collection of Oklahoma modernism falls into this latter category.
One result of a collection formed in this second way—over a long period of time, and through the generosity of many individual donors—is that each object has its own history and story to tell about where it has been and how it ended up at the OSU Museum of Art. A colleague of mine calls these histories “object biographies,” and has suggested that they have as much to tell us about the development of art as do more traditional ways of studying art history.
In our collection of Oklahoma modernism, all those object biographies come together to tell the story of a community that loved its artists, and supported their investigations into what was, at mid-century, a radical move toward painterly abstraction and experimentation with materials. They also tell a story of an artistic community that was nurtured by universities across the state—an idea that we’re going to explore more in our upcoming exhibition of the Kelly Knowlton collection this fall. Four artworks have just come into our collection—a recent gift to the OSUMA from Judi Baker, in honor of her parents, Robert and Jean Donaldson—which illustrate this sense of community perfectly. Robert Donaldson was an OSU business major and amateur artist himself. Baker recalls that when she was growing up, they lived next door to Doel Reed, head of the OSU Art Department, and so her father began going to exhibitions on campus. “He would go to shows and bring back work,” she relates. “He knew all of them.” Baker herself first became involved with the arts at OSU through the Doel Reed Center, a study center in Taos, NM, where Reed had a studio and home after his retirement from teaching.
Grace Hamilton—the artist responsible for the Stillwater Postal Plaza’s mural, The History of Payne County—painted this view of the Pi Beta Phi house in 1929. Its loosely handled, impressionist style is typical of the landscape style then popular among American modernist painters as they rejected the tightly-finished, academic style of conservative painters in favor of an emphasis on effects of light and painting directly from nature. This painting was originally owned by the donor’s grandmother, Ruth Orr, who was on the Oklahoma State University English Department faculty. Hamilton herself taught art in Stillwater—but she may have met Professor Orr while she was completing a Masters degree in English at the university. Hamilton’s husband, Don, meanwhile, was the head of the Architecture department.
Ella Jack’s untitled floral study takes the impressionist brushstroke employed by Hamilton and lets it explode. Although we recognize her subject, it is secondary to the balance of color and the dramatic energy of the paint. Jack taught at OSU for decades, bringing her wide experience to what was, at the beginning, a tiny department. She had studied in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, California, and Illinois before accepting her faculty position in Stillwater, and the startlingly avant-garde quality of her paintings from the 1930s and 1940s, despite their mundane subject matter, reflects her diverse background. Her memberships in the Association of Oklahoma Artists and the National Association of Women Artists suggest that she was committed to the power of community to advance and celebrate the arts—and women’s achievements therein.
Although Richard Goetz was not directly affiliated with OSU, his career path echoes the strengths that Jack brought to the Stillwater community and Oklahoma. After attending Oklahoma City University and the University of Oklahoma, Goetz moved to New York. He traveled extensively, both in the United States and abroad, but ultimately became most well-known for his domestic and Western subjects. His paintings can best be seen as a fusion of all these influences: the quiet light in this still life evokes Old Master paintings, for example, even as the brushwork is thoroughly modernist and the objects themselves typically American. Like many artists working in Oklahoma, including Ella Jack, Goetz was influential because he successfully created this synthesis in his work. For many years, he ran an art school of his own in Oklahoma City, and his teaching, like that of the other artists here, helped spread an internationally informed perspective throughout the state.
Rena Penn Brittan was on the faculty at OSU; she was responsible for teaching art and design in a variety of media. She worked in many media herself, including printmaking, but textiles were her specialty. In this work, the abstracted design of ducks recalls those created in paintings by her colleague, J. Jay McVicker (our recent gift from Richard and Esther Willham included a couple of his works). Penn Brittan has created texture and drama through her use of embroidery, appliqué, and collage in this work. Textiles are an important and under-studied element of international modernism. Earlier in the 20th century, fabric designs by Loïs Mailou Jones, working in Boston during the Harlem Renaissance, and Anni Albers, at the Bauhaus in Germany, were paving the way for mid-century textiles that explored questions of form, color, and texture—but also revealed something about women’s experiences of, and access to, the art world. By the end of the century, feminist artists were celebrating the history of textiles as a central part of the larger history of women’s creativity.