With green patterned wallpaper in the background and paints the color of pink flamingos, prints created for middle-class America from 1934 to 2000 are on display in Penn’s From Studio to Doorstep exhibition at Arthur Ross Gallery through August 21 shown.
The artworks are from Associated American Artists, a company founded in New York in 1934 with the intention of selling prints by mail order and offering an affordable alternative to the gallery model. The prints, signed and numbered in editions of 250, initially sold for $5 each. The works were created by well-known artists for $200 in advance.
“It was a whole new way of marketing artworks that were going to be shipped all over the country,” says Lynn Dolby, director of the university’s art collection and exhibition curator. “These prints were not necessarily intended for a museum audience; They were intended for the home and are of a very intimate size.”
All 37 prints in the exhibition are from the almost 100 in the Penn Art Collection and most have never been exhibited before. Many were donated by the late Anne Jaffe Portenar, a 1949 Penn graduate, and her husband Myron A. Portenar. Anne Portenar was friends for three decades with the company’s artistic director, Sylvan Cole, who she credits with sparking her interest in collecting the prints, Dolby says.
The gallery’s entrance wall is covered with a green and white wallpaper manufactured by Dolby that mimicked a pattern sold by Associated American Artists in 1953 and designed by artist Arnold Blanch. There hangs a print of an abstract floral painting, also from 1953, “Floral Magic,” by Blanch. “I thought we’d have to reunite those for this entryway wall,” says Dolby.
Also included in the entry is the only artist’s proof in the exhibit, Gray Nude, a 1953 woodcut by Milton Avery. “It’s interesting to look at an artist’s proof and see what the original looked like,” says Dolby. “We are very happy to have this in the collection.” The media vary, including woodcut, etching, linocut, engraving, aquatint, and lithography.
Some of the gallery walls are painted a mid-century pink flamingo color, which Dolby chose as a nod to the period and also as a contrasting background for the mostly black-and-white prints.
“Traditional images of rural America or small town America were very popular and valued for creating a sense of American unity,” says Dolby.
The advertisements published in the popular magazines of the time advertising the price of $5 (about $88 today) and encouraging the grouping of several prints to decorate the home will be also presented. Although the early advertisements appear to be aimed at a middle-class white audience, according to Dolby, the artists were of different races and ethnicities. For example, this exhibition includes prints by five Mexican artists.
From Studio to Doorstep is the 11th exhibition since 2010 created using works from the Penn Art Collection and the first to be curated by Dolby. Two students from the art academy were involved as interns in the preparation and promotion of the exhibition. Up-and-coming student Zoe Vaz with the Art Collection team and up-and-coming junior Xiaoyan (Sunny) Hua with the Gallery team participated with funds from the Summer Humanities Internship Program administered by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.
The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with ‘The Balers’, a 1934 etching by George Elmer Browne, through to a 1986 lithograph by Clinton Adams, ‘Still Life with Quotations’. The company ceased operations in 2000.
The company was also keen to educate their consumers, so the prints came with a label that explains a little about the artist, as well as a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist. Dolby added images of this to the artwork when available.
The hallmark of the exhibit is Stanley Kaplan’s 1972 etching “Home Run,” which depicts a baseball player swinging his bat. “It’s such a summer picture,” she says. “It’s very American.”
But her favorite is a 1937 lithograph by one of the most famous represented artists, Thomas Hart Benton, the print “Goin’ Home,” which was based on a 1928 drawing of a family in a horse-drawn carriage in North Carolina in the Smoky Mountains.
“I just love the pictures, the nostalgia of a horse-drawn carriage,” she says. “And I think the fact that the driver has his back to us makes him a species like any human. This is a very well known topic. I just love this piece.”