Event—Scholarly Seminars

Gwendolyn Owens, McGill University and Noga Bernstein, Stony Brook University

Gwendolyn Owens: The Will to Change: The Artistic Evolution of Marian Scott

Noga Bernstein: Mayan Modern: Ruth Reeves's Cross-Cultural Practice


Gwendolyn Owens

The Will to Change: The Artistic Evolution of Marian Scott

The art of Montreal artist Marian Dale Scott (1906-1993) evolved dramatically from realism to abstraction and color field painting. While every artist’s style evolves and changes, few are so willing to leave behind all elements of previous art. In her sixty-year career, her paintings evolved from flower studies to precisionist cityscapes, then to primitivist figures and later to geometric abstractions, and finally to abstract swirls of color on canvas. With every change, Scott worked to be a competent, skilled, and original artist, not a copyist. In my research, I am exploring in greater depth the changes and, as well, the relationship of her work to the work of her contemporaries, especially outside Canada, as she was a frequent visitor to New York and avid reader of art publications.

Noga Bernstein

Mayan Modern: Ruth Reeves's Cross-Cultural Practice

Indigenous art, particularly that of North and South American cultures, was a major influence on the development of modern American art and design. However, very few practitioners were willing to identify their specific artistic sources, or to discuss their methods of cultural appropriation. Instead, they upheld a myth of modernist originality, admitting only to have been “generally inspired” by indigenous art. American textile designer, painter and educator Ruth Reeves (1892-1966), was exceptional not only in her persistent use of indigenous American art throughout the four decades of her career, but also in her open—even obsessive—engagement with questions of artistic borrowing. Reeves’s practice of displaying her works alongside their sources, together with her discussion of those sources within her extensive writings, offer a rare insight into her methods of adaptation, and provide a new understanding of the ways in which cross-cultural practice shaped American modernism. My paper will discuss the development of Reeves’s cross-cultural practice during the interwar years, focusing primarily on her 1935 Exhibition of Guatemalan Textiles and Costumes—an exhibition that showcased a collection of hand-woven Guatemalan textiles alongside their hand-printed “modern adaptations” designed by Reeves. The exhibition, which opened in New ;York and later toured the United States for several years, was the result of a trip Reeves made to Guatemala in 1934, sponsored and facilitated by the Carnegie Institution of Washington as part of the organization’s efforts to generate diplomatic good will in Central America and promote its archeological programs. While Pan-American notions of Hemispheric unity were used to frame the entire project, Reeves also strived to distinguish her work as unique works of art made “in the spirit, rather than the letter” of their sources. As this paper will argue, Reeves’s project reflected new perceptions of modernity and tradition in both Guatemala and the United States, which impacted Reeves’s stylistic methods of adapting the Guatemalan textiles as well the rhetoric used to legitimize her cross-cultural work.

Respondent: Brandon Ruud, Milwuakee Art Museum

The American Art and Visual Culture Seminar is part of Art Design Chicago, an exploration of Chicago’s art and design legacy, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.