U.S. State Department Collection
In 1946, the U.S. State Department assembled an exhibition of modernist paintings created by contemporary American artists. The intent was to show the world America’s artistic coming of age, highlighting the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in the United States. The result was Advancing American Art, an exhibition designed to combat Communism but, ultimately, deemed un-American by members of the U.S. Congress and President Harry S. Truman.
J. LeRoy Davidson, who served the State Department as a visual arts specialist, was responsible for developing a set of touring exhibitions to demonstrate not only the diversity of American modern art, but also the power of democracy to nourish freedom of expression. Advancing American Art originally consisted of 79 oil paintings, and the State Department paired it with smaller collections of watercolor, tempera, gouache and other media, with intentions to travel works to Europe, Asia and South America.
Advancing American Art initially met with positive press, such as its premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 1946 and its brief appearances in Paris and Prague. But criticism followed soon after.
William Randolph Hearst’s New York-Journal American ran images of the work with sarcastic captions. Conservative artists’ groups, unhappy with the exclusion of more traditionally-rendered material, mounted letter-writing campaigns. Congressmen investigated the backgrounds of the artists, many of whom were immigrants or had left-wing leanings, and even President Harry Truman expressed his disdain for modern art in public. The ensuing debacle led Congress to eliminate funding for the project, leaving the art to be auctioned off by the War Assets Administration and Davidson without a job.
The OU Museum of Art was quick to purchase 36 paintings from the State Department and bolster its growing permanent collection.
Representing works by artists from Romare Bearden to Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Loren MacIver, Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, Art Interrupted includes many important figures in the development of American modernism. It also serves, in the end, as a testament to Davidson’s goals.
Although his plan to promote the vitality of American art abroad failed, Davidson’s project had a second life as the works were dispersed across the nation. In the collections of, primarily, university museums and galleries, including the three organizing institutions, they exemplified the principles for which he had intended them and reached countless Americans in their formative years.