When the Huntington opened its Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art in 1984, it had barely ten 20th-century paintings. All were figurative; the most recent was Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg (1935).
This weekend, the Scott Galleries opened five new rooms, presenting 116 additional objects from the 20th century. Carved out of storage space in Frederick Fisher’s 2005 Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, the new rooms inherit the stately proportions of the original Erburu, lacking only the skylights. (Shown, Warhol’s Small Crushed Campbell’s Soup Can, 1962, and a c. 1915 silver vase and tray by Shreve & Co.)
In total the Scott now has 21,500 sq. ft. of exhibition space. That’s more than twice that of LACMA’s American department in its Art of the Americas building and, believe it or not, two-thirds the square footage of the Met American Wing’s painting and sculpture rooms (reopened in 2012 with 30,000 square feet). Unlike LACMA or the Met, the Huntington’s American survey runs from colonial times to minimalism in one contiguous set of rooms. Over the past three decades, the Huntington has inched its American chronology up by 45+ years, to about 1980.
A turning point for the collection was 2010. That year Robert Shapazian’s estate gave the Huntington its two early 1960s Warhols. An anonymous donor also gave a $1.75 million fund for post-1945 American art, in Shapazian’s honor.
Given that the institution has been collecting postwar art for only about five years, you’d expect the collection to be stretched thin in all that new space. It doesn’t feel that way due to twenty or so important loans from private and museum collections. Loans debuting include good-to-superlative pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe (below, Ghost Ranch Cliffs), Henrietta Shore (Cactus, praised by Edward Weston), Lee Mullican, Emerson Woelffer, and Frank Stella.
The best of all the loans might be Alma Thomas’ Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Thomas is one of the greatest American artists least represented on the West Coast. The Smithsonian has a dozen of her paintings, but rarely is more than one or two on view. This sort of loan ought to be more common.
I’m no fan of California Impressionism. But the Huntington display makes the strongest case I’ve seen for California plein air landscapes as not totally boring. Five of the most important practitioners are represented with a single painting each, all at the top of the respective artists’ form (and all on loan from private collectors). The standout is Edgar Payne’s San Gabriel Valley (c. 1916), depicting the Huntington-adjacent scenery as a Magic Mountain.
The most surprising (and flawed) of the new rooms is the one devoted to minimalism and pop. It’s got Warhol and Ruscha; Frank Stella, John McLaughlin, and Frederick Hammersley. The art is excellent, but one piece doesn’t play well with others. That’s the recently acquired Tony Smith sculpture, For W.A. (1969). It is a subtle thing, two black boxes that are actually rhombus-shaped in cross section. They are human-scaled—the top is little below eye level—and demand inspection from all sides.
The Smith is presented with several black or black-and-white abstractions. Though the grouping is clever, the feng shui is a little off. As you walk around the Smith, brightly colored pop art and a day-glo Stella protractor peep above its glossy upper surfaces. From no vantage point can you look at just the Smith, without distraction. Furthermore, the 20-foot-wide Stella painting (Hiraqla Varation III, lent by the Norton Simon) is so big that you want to step back, but the two-part Smith commands much of the center of the room. I guess Time magazine had a point: The art has outgrown the museum.
The Scott’s small temporary exhibition space, the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing, is presenting “Highlights of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Huntington’s Art Collections.” Among the most modern watercolors is a 1939 New York Street Scene by the reluctant American George Grosz. A 1906-ish Mary Cassatt pastel, Françoise Holding a Little Dog, was purchased by Arabella Huntington not so long after it was made. Rarely shown, it was one of the Huntington family’s first works of American art.