Anyone who has visited Newark in the past decade has observed the resurgence of arts and culture, from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Dodge Poetry Festival to the Aljira Contemporary Art Center and the many artists’ studios. But of course Newark has a long history of arts and culture, with its Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and Moorish architecture housing such venerable institutions as the Newark Museum and Newark Symphony Hall. Its Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is rumored to have as much stained glass as the Cathedral of Chartres, and the relocation of tech companies like Audible, which hires New Jersey actors to record the written word, has led some to call Newark the new Brooklyn.
Morven Museum & Garden is celebrating this rich heritage with “Newark and the Culture of Art: 1900-1960,” with an opening reception Thursday, June 15, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. With more than 50 loans, the exhibition explores the combination of art and industry that made Newark a magnet for modern artists in the early 20th century. It will run through January of next year.
Two major influences led to the creative culture of early 20th-century Newark: John Cotton Dana, the visionary figure who founded the Newark Museum, the earliest institution to give sustained support to the expression of modernism in America; and the legendary Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, where the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow, a leading spokesman for the new American art, held sway.
Dana’s goal was to educate by presenting examples of superior design to the greatest number of people, including Newark’s immigrant and working class population, making art a vital part of Newark culture and society. Through Dana’s efforts, art, industry, and society were brought together through accessible design on everyday items, from the teacup to textiles. The exhibition includes paintings, weavings, ceramics, sculpture, and ephemera.
As director at the Newark Public Library, Dana believed in making its materials accessible to all. The library loaned fine art prints and original artwork to the public, allowing Newark citizens access to the collection Dana believed was theirs. He exhibited photography as fine art before many museums and art institutions recognized it as such. The Newark Museum was founded on the fourth floor of the library, not only to exhibit art, science, history, and technology, but for the encouragement of the study of the arts and sciences.
Less than a year after American modernist artist John Marin’s debut exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291, the Newark Museum included the New Jersey-born Marin in an ambitious exhibition of paintings by “The Eight” — a seminal group of artists credited with creating a realistic, uniquely American style of painting. A year later, in 1911, the museum exhibited works by the Ashcan Painters John Sloan, William Glackens, and George Bellows, and presented the first museum show of Stuart Davis, considered one of the state’s most talented artists of the time.
“Just months after the Amory Show of 1913 — the recognized dawn of the American modern art movement — the Newark Museum presented the first museum exhibition of an American cubist painter, Max Weber,” writes Morven Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan in the exhibition catalog. This was before New York’s Museum of Modern Art or Guggenheim existed.
Weber had studied with Arthur Wesley Dow at Pratt, considering Dow “the greatest teacher I ever had.” Dow taught him to see not things but relationships.
Dow’s ideas were revolutionary for the period. He taught that rather than copying nature, art should be created by elements of the composition such as line, mass, and color. Like Dana, Dow believed art was to be seen as a living force in everyday life for all, not a traditional ornament for the few. His ideas were published in the 1899 book “Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers.”
“Composition (is) the putting together of lines, masses, and colors to make a harmony,” he wrote. “Building up of harmony is the fundamental process in all the fine arts.” His synthesis of Eastern and Western art combined for the new American art. Among Dow’s students were Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler.
By the 1920s, thanks to a gift from department store icon and philanthropist Louis Bamberger, the Newark Museum moved into its own structure designed by Jarvis Hunt, who also designed Bamberger’s flagship store in Newark.
Immigrants from Germany and Russia settled in Newark, drawn by acceptance and jobs for talented craftsmen in such industries as beer brewing. Some of these immigrants overflowed from Brooklyn and Staten Island, and many came to be with relatives.
To attract the entire population of the industrial city, inspiring beauty and quality, Dana focused on exhibiting local arts and products, according to the co-curator of the Morven exhibit, Roy Pedersen, who runs Pedersen Gallery in Lambertville and curated “Coastal Impressions: Paintings of the Jersey Shore” at Morven in 2013.
“To his thinking, a good museum was an institution of visual instruction that would display products of its own place and time, and he chastised other museums for caring more about beautiful European objects than about the cultural expression within their own communities,” Pedersen writes in the catalog. “The worth of a museum should be measured by its public use, he felt, and not solely by the value of its collections of rare and beautiful objects.”
By the 1930s Newark had a group of talented artists living in the city, many of German descent. Artists such as Bernard Gussow (the first American Fauve — or colorful “wild beast” — painter, who had exhibited with Matisse and Cezanne), Adolf Konrad, Henry Gasser, Rudolph Voelcker, and John Grabach were committed to developing their own form of realism.
Two artists Pedersen showcased in “Coastal Impressions” can be seen here again: Mother and daughter Ida and Clara Stroud. Ida had been a student of Dow at Pratt, where she learned to paint in a flat style. She went on to teach at Pratt, then the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts (NSFIA). Clara also studied at Pratt and designed covers for Gustav Stickley’s Craftsmen magazine. Ida organized some of the earliest exhibitions for female artists in New Jersey at the LeFevre Gallery at 802 Broad Street in Newark.
Meanwhile the “Cooperative Gallery” at NSFIA became a headquarters for such modern artists as Joseph Stella, Diego Rivera, and Reginald Marsh. And exhibitions at the New Jersey Gallery, created for Kresge Department Store, also helped promote these artists.
“If you were a student at NSFIA at the time, you got to see some of the most advanced art in America,” says Allan. “There was a lot to be proud of in Newark.”
After nearly a century of helping its alumni to get jobs as commercial artists, the publicly funded NSFIA closed its doors in the 1990s.
Pedersen, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, took an unusual route toward becoming a New Jersey art historian. His father, who worked in printing and binding, loved boating and looking around at boatyards. He had boats from which he went blue fishing and explored the marsh. “Knowing the art of a region, you begin to see through the eyes of the painter, and it enriches the pleasure of seeing and experiencing an area where you live,” Pedersen says.
His mother, who studied economics at Douglass College, had grown up in Newark, where a doctor prescribed daily walks at the shore for health. She encouraged Roy to be an architect. He studied psychology at Brown University in the 1960s but frequently attended lectures and exhibits at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. He earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of New Hampshire in 1973. Working as a psychological consultant at Rahway State Prison, he says he saw some of the best theater of his life.
A Gestalt therapist asked him to be a partner in a new gallery of Haitian art in New Hope, and though the gallery failed instantly, it succeeded in showing Pedersen what he loved most, meeting painters and looking at art. “It was the late 1970s, and the question of what I wanted to do in life was over.”
Pedersen is credited with discovering the New Hope Modernists who had long been overshadowed by the Bucks County Impressionists. That culminated in a 1994 exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
‘But no one was interested in Jersey artists,” says Pedersen, who saw a great opportunity to buy undervalued paintings and play a role in New Jersey history. “I became a demon. I love this (type of) painting and researched and looked for connections 365 days a year. It’s like discovering a great ancient city, and a simple shovel allows you to dig and see it. The sense of discovery is terrific.”
Pedersen’s research methods include talking to historical societies and pursuing families. Sometimes family members come forward and seek his ear, tapping into the skills he honed as a psychologist.
“People respond to regional art,” he says. “When you see an empty parking lot in Newark, or a junk man, through the eyes of an artist — something most people wouldn’t consider beautiful, but the artist sees in it something worthwhile — it’s transformational and changes the way you see. You’ll never see New Jersey the same way again. With an artist’s point of view, you’ll want to preserve what’s beautiful, whether stone houses in Bucks County or a street corner with lines of drying laundry in Newark.”
So why are the New Jersey painters under-appreciated? “I don’t know why New Jersey didn’t get off the starting blocks when the interest in regional painting soared in the 1980s,” says Pedersen. “But Morven, with its interest in regional painting, is stepping in. The conventional wisdom is that regional art is second rate. But nothing is more transformational on the citizens of a region as its art. It changes the way you see and think because it is the landscape you know and you feel a connection to the artist and subject — that’s as powerful an experience as you can get looking at art.”
“At a time when art education is underfunded and undervalued,” says Allan, “the story of Newark and its culture of art accessibility in the first half of the 20th century can serve as a powerful reminder that everyone can benefit from art. It is not a minor but an important aspect of life for every class of the citizenry.”
Newark and the Culture of Art: 1900-1960, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opening reception Thursday, June 15, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. On view through January 28, 2018. $8 to $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.