Currier’s ‘Urban Landscapes’ builds views of architecture, people, activism
This photograph titled “Children Who Work in the Amoskeag Mills” was taken in 1909 by Lewis Wickes Hine. (Currier Museum of Art)
If you go...
WHAT: 'Urban Landscapes: Manchester and the Modern American City'
WHEN: June 11-Aug. 29
WHERE: The Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester
INFO: 669-6144; currier.org
Urban Landscapes: Manchester and the Modern American City,” opening in Manchester at The Currier Museum of Art Saturday, is a blueprint for how humans have continually reshaped and reimagined city life and their places within it.
Taken primarily from the Currier’s collection, the exhibition takes viewers from the 1890s to the present, focusing mostly on cities around New Hampshire, New York City and Boston through themes of architecture, people and activism.
“I am particularly excited about the more contemporary work,” said Kurt Sundstrom, exhibition curator told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “It is very interesting how artists today are dealing with the same issues that dominated artists of the early 20th century: poverty, crime, unemployment, income inequality and how all these social, economic and political issues affect the middle class.”
Piecing it together
Paintings, photographs, prints and videos will be on view through Aug. 29. Some of the pieces are new acquisitions, on view for the first time. They include work by John Sloan, Martin Lewis, Berenice Abbott, Carl Chiarenza, Howard Cook, Bruce Davidson, Jerome Liebling, Ray Metzker, Gerda Peterich, Wayne Thiebaud and John Woodrow Wilson.
“We are also borrowing work from the Manchester Historical Society, which includes historic images of Manchester and the mills,” Sundstrom said. “In addition, we are borrowing photographs by Nicholas Nixon, Lynn Saville and Abe Morell, collages by Mary Lum and a wonderful video by James Nares. Also on view are more recent works by Richard Estes, Nicholas Nixon, Catherine Opie and Abelardo Morell.”
Together, “Urban Landscapes” goes from the realistic to the abstract and romantic to gritty, illustrating along the way the social and technological changes taking place in American cities in the 1900s. The artist’s bring a sense of being in the midst of that bustling turmoil, from reflective moments to weighty sights.
The show is anchored by three themes: “People in the City,” “City as Stage for Activism” and “Modern Architecture and the City.”
The first section returns to the Industrial Revolution, when the influx of individuals from rural areas and the immigrants needed to support the new economy permanently changed the character of the urban landscape. Artists were drawn to depicting people living their lives in such close proximity, with little opportunity for privacy. John Sloan (1871-1951), a painter and an etcher, unabashedly revealed this new reality in “Love on the Roof,” a 1914 piece considered at the time to be racy. It shows a couple embracing on a rooftop, surrounded by billowing hung laundry, while a toddler sits at their feet.
In dealing with urban settings as a backdrops for activism, the second section of the exhibit highlights gripping civil, economic and political challenges across generations. The worker’s rights movements of the 1920s and 1930s pitted large corporations against their workers, and resulting mass demonstrations for unionization and safer working conditions forever changed the relationship between employee and business owner.
Later, African-American soldiers returned from World War II, where they fought side-by-side with white soldiers, were not treated as equals at home. They took to the streets to demand social and financial equality. “I Am A Man” (1968), a photograph by Ernest Withers (1922-2007), captures the moment when Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, citing discrimination and dangerous working conditions. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination later that year intensified the anger and despair as riots broke out in cities across the country.
The final section of the exhibition chronicles a new urban economy and the radical changes it brought about.
Businesses required substantially more office space and began building skyscrapers, essentially massive monuments to themselves. Apartments sprung up to house the influx of workers and multi-story, multi-family dwellings became the norm as limited land forced the urban landscape to grow vertically. Roads and bridges were built at a furious pace, creating the infrastructure to handle the needs of businesses and their employees.
“Artists celebrated these fast-changing engineering achievements by treating the new structures as abstract objects, focusing on discrete elements of the whole, thus separating form from function,” according to exhibit literature. “In concentrating on details, they turned the everyday into ... angular or curvaceous geometric structures.
Later, artists such as painter and photographer Charles Sheeler revealed the other side of the city when factories closed after World War II, and the economy shifted focus.
Among associated events for the exhibit this summer are two tours, to be led by Sundstrom and author and historian Aurore Eaton. The first, to take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 30, will center on Manchester’s mills, “how photography helped to establish the child labor laws, and also how artists found artistic inspiration in the growing city of Manchester,” Sundstrom said.
NH Weekend Editor Julia Ann Weekes contributed to this story.