The works on paper collection of the Johnson Museum houses over 20,000 objects, many of them works by American artists. The initial gift to Cornell came prior to the existence of an actual museum to house the works, with a group of nearly three thousand prints, drawings, and photographs donated by William P. Chapman, Class of 1895. From this first gift, our collections have grown and thrived, thanks to many more generous donors, and, over Reunion, it seems appropriate to focus on our stellar collection of twentieth-century American works. This exhibition highlights some of the many recent acquisitions to the works on paper department as well as several loans to the collection that help fill out the story.
The turn of the last century saw a gradual shift from European-based academic training for artists to a more homegrown approach. Education in the arts was expanding rapidly all around the country. Art in the United States became much more focused on the individuality of the American experience, and artists such as the Ashcan School group known as “The Eight” (Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and Everett Shinn) explored revelatory artistic themes of lower- and middle-class life. When the Armory Show opened in 1913, the stage was set for a revolutionary reassessment. This was quickly followed by World War I, which transplanted many European artists to the New York art scene—artists such as Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp—and the shift homeward became even more pronounced.
Despite the Depression, the 1930s offered many opportunities for artists in the form of the Works Project Administration and the Farm Security Administration. The outbreak of World War II brought a new group of artist refugees to the United States, among them Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy. Others followed soon after the war, and by the 1950s the center of the art world was New York, with the Abstract Expressionists at the core. Subsequent art movements like Pop Art, Photorealism, and Minimalism seem quintessentially American in their clean, crisp edges and bright colors, but by the 1980s the art world started to shift again, expanding to become more global. Today, there is no longer one city at the center of the art world, as artists share ideas through mass communication and can produce their work anywhere.
Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs