North of Dallas, the great plains of Oklahoma are flattened by the sheer weight of the vast blue skies above. Norman, a small college town bisected by a busy interstate, is home to the University of Oklahoma.
Truck stops, an Outback Steakhouse and an International House of Pancakes flank the interstate. My misguided attempt to order a healthy meal at the Waffle House results in a plate of hash browns covered in hamburger mince and ketchup. Breakfast of Champions.
A few blocks east of the interstate, the only sign that there’s a Waffle House in town is my acid reflux.The highway quickly gives way to leafy backstreets and the pleasant, sprawling University of Oklahoma campus, home to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
The museum is named after a college football player who died in a plane crash in his senior year. It’s a small, strikingly modern building with a rich collection of American art. Founded in 1915, under the directorship of Dr. Oscar Jacobson, the museum built up a three thousand piece collection over the next thirty years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the museum could rightly call itself by that name. The art was housed in ‘the attic, the basement…it was not a museum,’ says the Museum’s Curator of Collections, Gail Anderson.
Art as War Surplus
An act of postwar government folly saw Jacobson strike artistic gold in the form of Edward Hopper’s watercolor, ‘House in Provincetown’ (1930). With it came thirty-five other gems of contemporary American painting, transforming the University of Oklahoma’s art collection overnight.
In 1945, in the wake of World War II, the State Department organized a traveling exhibition of American art to Europe and Latin America. Called ‘Advancing American Art’, the exhibition was both a goodwill and a propaganda mission. J. Leroy Davidson, the man put in charge of the endeavor, purchased works of art for the exhibition at discount rates from the artists. The artists ‘figured they would make up for the little they were paid through the prestige to be derived from the exhibit.’ Anderson says that the decision to purchase the art seemed a sensible move at the time, as the intention was to leave most of the pictures overseas at American Embassies.
‘If that is art, I’m a Hottentot.’
– Harry Truman
Within the space of a year, Davidson had bought seventy-nine oil paintings for $49,912 and thirty-eight watercolors for $6,688. Forty-seven contemporary American artists were represented. ‘Advancing American Art’ premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in October, 1946. It then traveled to Paris, Prague and Latin America.
Critics in New York and Europe applauded the collection. The President of Czechoslovakia, Edward Benes, raised $6,000 to circulate the collection from Prague to other cities in Czechoslovakia.
However, the eclectic works, which portrayed the gritty realism of Depression-era America as well as showcasing the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement, shocked some sensibilities. Conservatives in Congress and the press, in particular the Hearst-controlled media, reacted vehemently to the depiction of America on such terms to the world.
Particularly controversial was Jack Levin’s picture, ‘The White Horse’, which showed an exhausted and emaciated horse pulling a cart through a grim urban scene. President Truman didn’t help things with his criticism of one Kuniyoshi painting, exclaiming, ‘The artist must have stood off from the canvas and thrown paint at it. If that is art, I’m a Hottentot.’ The subtext for such vitriol was the left-leaning political tendencies of many of the artists included in the show. It was nicknamed the ‘Red Art Show.’
The extent of the furor led to the exhibition’s recall to America. Once home, it was thrown together as ‘war surplus’ and sold off by the War Assets Administration at a 95% discount. The government prioritized educational institutions as purchasers but also sold some pictures to World War II veterans for ‘business use.’
The University of Oklahoma, along with Auburn University in Alabama, did the best out of the fire sale, obtaining thirty-six pictures each. Amongst the more obscure bidders was the New Trier Township High School of Winnetka, Illinois. It obtained two pictures, including a Stuart Davis painting. The Stuart Davis picture, ‘Still Life with Flowers’ was bought for $62.50 in 1948 and sold in 2005 for $3.1 million.
‘What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.’
– Edward Hopper
The Edward Hopper picture hung today amongst Pissarros, Monets and a Van Gogh last sold for $37.50. Its real stable mates in Oklahoma, however, are its fellow ‘Advancing American Art’ pictures, including ‘The White Horse’ which looks only slightly less tortured today than it did sixty years ago.
Sunlight on the Side of a House
Many museum visitors mistakenly believe ‘House in Provincetown’ to be an oil painting, so rich is it with shading and color. The evening autumn light turns the side of the Victorian house in Cape Cod the white of the paper underneath. The avoidance of white paint, in favor of leaving the paper untouched, was a common Hopper technique. It gives his watercolors a raw beauty.
As is often the case with Hopper, there is also a hint of humanity, of foible or playful carelessness. In the fence in the foreground, a picket or two is missing. The shrubbery hugs the fence in a lazy embrace, softening its middle pickets into greenery. Hopper famously said, ‘What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.’ With ‘House in Provincetown’, he did just that.
What’s the biggest bargain you’ve heard of in the art world?