Talking American Art with Kevin Murphy, WCMA’s New Curator of American Art
The newest addition to the WCMA family is Kevin Murphy, the Eugénie Prendergast Curator of American Art. Kevin joined us from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he served as Curator of American Art and managed their Tyson Scholars of American Art program. Before his two-and-a-half years at Crystal Bridges, Kevin had been Associate Curator at the Huntington Library in California, where he had also completed his doctorate in art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kevin is slated to present an installation of American art from WCMA’s permanent collection this spring.
JB: Hi, Kevin, We’re hoping you’ve settled in nicely to your new role at WCMA. What can you tell us about your transition to working in Williamstown? Is this your first return to this area since your time getting a Master’s at UMass, Amherst? How are you finding your first Berkshire winter after so many years in California and Arkansas?
KM: Yes, it is my first time back. Actually, I visited a friend who was working at the Clark. But, other than that, I haven’t really been back to Massachusetts, outside of Boston, since 1998, when I finished my Master’s. I was a little bit familiar with the region, which was good. So I kind of knew what I was getting into. In that way, the transition has been pretty good. I was at least familiar; I had been here and seen it. The first big snowfall was [just recently] over a weekend, and it was great! But then it snowed during the day, during a working day, and that was not as good. I think if the snow would just come down when you didn’t have to get anywhere, that would be great. I got my L. L. Bean winter boots just in time, so I didn’t have to slog through slush in rainboots. I was caught unawares, though. I didn’t have a scraper for my car. I kept thinking that that was something that I needed to get eventually. Eventually came a lot sooner, so I ended up having a “nice” half-hour in my car using just the defroster one evening. Now, I’m set, though.
JB: Oh, good. Other than that, have you had any surprises upon your arrival here?
KM: I don’t know about surprises. I’m really enjoying it. I feel like it’s a really close-knit community. Although I was living in a relatively rural place in Arkansas before I came here, this feels much more like a community to me than it did to me there. So, I don’t know if I was necessarily surprised by that, but it’s nice to have that feeling.
JB: We’re all looking forward to your reinvigoration of the American art special exhibitions and permanent collection displays. What’s your first line of attack?
KM: The first thing I wanted to do was . . . I knew the collection a little bit. It’s a collection that most American art curators know about. It’s a very solid collection. It’s published well. Things from it go out on special exhibition. So I had a baseline of the highlights from the collection, so I started there with the idea that I actually didn’t want to focus on those highlights. So I took a look the first couple of weeks that I was here, just sat down with the databases, and basically just went very time-consumingly through all the American objects in all the various media I could find off the database and made lists of them, different kinds of lists by time period, by media, by subject, theme, all of that, trying to get a sense of where the strengths of the collection were and maybe some hidden things that I didn’t know about. Then, I took a look at the American Dreams catalogue [WCMA’s 2001 collection catalogue of American art by Nancy Mowll Matthews], and I took a look at some of the exhibitions that have been done from permanent collection material. I thought this is a really good opportunity for me to play with the collection and take a cut through it that reflects the process of me learning about it. So that was one of the ideas I had, to lay that process bare. So there will be a number of things that represent pockets of strengths in the collection, and then there are some things that people would expect to see that won’t be on view, because there are things that I hadn’t seen, and I really wanted to see them. So that was really the strategy. So we’re doing it by theme and trying to come up with interesting and, hopefully, provocative juxtapositions of objects from the colonial period through about 1960 [to place] into the gallery spaces. We’re looking at themes of childhood, the way that male and female figures have been portrayed by American artists, the idea of landscape, the idea of still life objects, the idea of food. There’s a number of different thematic things to tease out.
JB: What are some of the highlights that we’ll be seeing in this upcoming installation?
KM: For me, there are a couple of artists whom I’m really a big fan of, and Williams has quite a few works by them. I really like Academic painting, and I’ve got two of the [Elihu] Vedder murals for the Library of Congress going up along with [Edwin Howland] Blashfield, a spectacular drawing, a commission. One part of one wall of the gallery will address the Academic figure tradition in American art from [Benjamin] West forward to Paul Cadmus. That will be one highlight. The Grant Wood Death on the Ridge Road is a painting that I really love, and I’ve been thinking about developing an exhibition around it at some point, so that’s certainly going to be out. I’m putting it in juxtaposition with the great William Morris Hunt Niagara painting to talk about road tourism and the idea of travel on America’s highways (in the nineteenth-century obviously not exactly highways, but . . . .), a place like Niagara being a draw, and Wood talking about the interstate—the darker side of travel.
JB: Will there be any loans for that installation?
KM: This will be strictly Williams objects. I’m sort of thinking proportionally. There will be a number of Prendergasts there. We have a lot of Benjamin West, so there will be a number of those. So I am thinking of working with bigger aspects of the collection. There will be three of the World War I posters. We have quite a bit of those, and I think they can be used in interesting ways. I’m looking forward to bumping them up against paintings or other fine art objects. But no, no loans. Since I really wanted to learn the collection, I thought it would be great to work with what we had, rather than borrow things.
JB: You talked a bit about the themes that will be in it, and you mentioned, for example, the wall of Academic painting that will be included. So how will that figure into the themes you mentioned? Is the Academic painting for the male/female theme?
KM: Yes, that’s where that goes. I’m working on the text now. I’ve got the installation down, and I know the ideas I want to work with. What was interesting to me was that you’ve got these touchstone objects, the Cadmus was one of those, and you have the Vedders. Cadmus is inheriting the Academic tradition in the early twentieth century. I thought it would be interesting to look at how that develops and look at training and all of that. Also, I’ve got figure studies, and [I’m interested in] looking at the way that female figures have been looked at in different media over time. The trick is to make sure that the theme and ideas I want to tease out—that people can see them. This is always the hard thing.
JB: You mentioned a text. Will there be a catalogue for this?
KM: No. I arrived in September, so I’m working on the text that will be there [in the museum space], walltext. I’ve really tried to create these thematic groupings that will make implicit sense to the viewer. So I’m trying to use minimal walltext to see how those ideas are working visually. I would rather that people not feel like they had to read a lot to get what was going on. This is something that we will see with the more contemporary works as well. The objects will speak, and they will speak because of the relationships they have with other objects, rather than speak through a text that is next to them in some way. I’m planning on some area labels that will talk about groupings of objects and why those groupings are there, with the idea that they should draw you back to the object.
JB: Will there be any public programs related to this, lectures, symposia etc.?
KM: I don’t think so. I think the idea is that WCMA has been very special-exhibition-focused. In fact, even when the American permanent collection has gone on view, it’s been like American Dreams or Don’t Fence Me In [Don’t Fence U. S. In: Crossing Boundaries in American Art], and those were really permanent collection installations you might find at another museum. So I’m really looking at it like that. It’s a chance to look at the permanent collection with the idea that some of the work will be up for the near term. But it will certainly change and be adapted. Some works on paper will need to be changed out, and we are adding some loans later in the year, so those will be incorporated into the mix.
JB: Do you have other projects that you have in the works that you can share with us?
KM: Kind of. I’m still getting my bearings a bit. We’re working on a course for the Fall [for both Master’s and undergraduate levels] that will [require] think[ing] very critically about museum practice and curatorial practice and design and architecture. That’s really the next thing that I’m putting my mind to over the summer, really looking at museum interpretation as not separate from art historical or curatorial practice. I’m also trying to develop an idea around the Grant Wood, looking at the idea of crash imagery, crashes of trains, planes, and cars from the 1930s through the 1960s. That’ll be fun.
JB: Ooh, get a little Warhol in there? That sounds good.
KM: Yes, it’ll be Wood to Warhol, as the parameters. [It will include John] Chamberlain; there’s a number of others. Just investigating what it meant to work with destroyed technology.
JB: That sounds really interesting.
KM: I’m hoping. That would be a big project.
JB: And that would be looking forward?
KM: Exactly. And that would be with a catalogue and all of that.
JB: Can you tell us a bit about this project you’re working on with the Louvre and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for 2014?
KM: It was a partnership that was developed when I was at Crystal Bridges. The French museums have been really interested in showing American art. The people that you think of as carrying the twentieth century are very popular. The past president of the Louvre who just retired this spring Henri Loyrette was really interested in historical American art and thought it would be great to get historical American art into the Louvre. They actually have a small collection, believe it or not, of American and British, and they have a curator who works with that. The Louvre and the High had worked together quite a bit, and the Terra Foundation’s mission is to spread knowedge of American art around the world. Crystal Bridges came on as a partner when the museum didn’t have walls. Much like the Terra Foundation, we had a collection but we didn’t have a museum. So the idea was that it would be a great opportunity to send works out. So that was the genesis of it. There are going to be [a total of] four exhibitions. This is the third. A curator from each of the institutions has been the lead on one iteration of it. So the first exhibition we did was on landscape. It turned out that all of us had Thomas Cole paintings that dealt with narratives, so we did that. The second was genre painting. The third is on British and American portraits around 1800. So that’s opening at the Louvre in January, and I was the lead curator on it and wrote the catalogue for it. It will then travel to Bentonville [Arkansas, home of the Crystal Bridges Museum] and the High in Atlanta later in the year.
JB: So it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy with that.
KM: Yes, all the catalogue stuff was keeping me busy. We’re now in press, but all of the proof[read]ing was happening this fall. I also spoke in China at a conference. So it’s been a busy fall! The Louvre projects were really fun to work on. They’re relatively small exhibitions, but they’re incorporated into the permanent collection galleries of the Louvre, so it’s amazing when you go and you see you have the entire Louvre as your exhibition space in a way. So that’s been fun. And it’s great to see people looking closely at historical American art, not just [Edward] Hopper.
JB: Thanks so much for your time, Kevin! We look forward to seeing all of your upcoming projects.
KM: Thank you.
—Jane R. Becker
WCMA blog writer