We long to walk the boardwalk again, smelling the sea air, hearing the children laugh, and the gulls cry. Finding fireworks is our common religion.
Jonas Lie’s painting of a beach house, on view in the New Jersey State Museum’s “Size Matters” exhibit, depicts a placid place, a beach devoid of bathers, reminding us of the quiet retreat the Jersey Shore was a century ago.
Next to it is an early 20th-century watercolor by an unknown American showing another peaceful shore, before Mother Nature exhibited her wrath.
The works in “Size Matters” may be diminutive — none is larger than 12 inches in any direction — but they tell big stories. In some cases you may need to stand close to see the detail, but you will spend a good amount of time looking and examining. Just as in a well-written short story, every component matters in these small works.
Charles Ward, known for his New Deal murals, including three in downtown Trenton, is here represented by two prints that are no larger than a 35mm contact print. One shows a man sitting on a bench, birds at his feet. Is one hand stretched out to feed the birds? Did the artist feel small while making this tiny image? Another similarly sized print shows a man in a hat and coat walking in a woods, a fox nearby. These look like fables.
“When working small, overall composition and the scale of the elements that make up the work become critical,” says curator of fine arts Margaret O’Reilly. “Because there is so little space to work within, every element included in the work takes on added importance. Each line, shape, color, texture must be carefully considered to ensure that it does not become a distracting element. Small works require the viewer to move in for a closer look and to discover the importance of each element.”
O’Reilly had been researching landscapes and looking through the drawers of works on paper in the collection when she came across the small Oscar Bluemner works on view here.
“We have two major paintings by Bluemner, as well as 40 to 50 of these small studies,” she says of the German-born American modernist. Bluemner, who painted many scenes of New Jersey, had been part of influential American (and sometimes New Jersey-based) photographer Arthur Stieglitz’s circle of artists, though not as well known as other members, such as Georgia O’Keeffe.
At the same time, O’Reilly came across small works by self-taught artist Gregory Van Maanen, who uses art to exorcise memories of the Vietnam War, in which he served. Skulls and eyeballs predominate in his larger works, as well as these two small acrylics.
“All of a sudden the idea of ‘little’ began reverberating,” says O’Reilly. “You know how you may be searching for something on the Internet and three hours later you discover something else? I thought, I can use these ideas to do an interesting show of works I hadn’t seen in a while. Small works don’t get shown very often, because they would get lost next to larger paintings.”
With all the small works in the collection, O’Reilly says she could have done four shows.
“The artists were making a conscious decision to work small,” she says. Since size, and not style or time period, is the unifying theme, laying them out in a cohesive way presented a challenge O’Reilly eagerly met. “Creating a dialogue between the works was the fun part,” she says.
The works in “Size Matters” are from 1876 to contemporary times, and include such artists as Alex Katz, Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Elsie Driggs, William Wegman, and John Marin, among others.
The collection, which includes a diversity of artists from New Jersey, has been growing since 1960. Funds come from donations, deaccessions, and bequests, and collectors and artists may donate work.
“Usually a gift starts with a phone call,” says O’Reilly. “We have a collection protocol. I will ask them to send an image; then I consider the provenance and condition. We have to be judicious in what we collect. It has to be in good condition to store and be cared for.” The work should also fill a gap. For example, a work should supplement, not duplicate, the works already owned.
O’Reilly, who has been building the collection since 1997, goes to auctions and galleries to looks for works of art and communicates with other museum curators. She keeps a list of artwork she would like to acquire that will complement the collection of American art with a focus on New Jersey. “I also have to think of curators who will follow me, and what they will want to represent this time.”
When putting together an exhibit from the collection, some of the artwork may need to be framed. In the case of this exhibit of small works, the museum preparator was able to build frames and mats from museum stock.
O’Reilly built an image bank of all the small works she was considering for the exhibit, and then created a slideshow on her home computer so the works could tell their stories.
“I kept coming back to Bluemner,” she says of the artist who had no recognition in his lifetime. “I started with his sketches, grouping them together, to see what would work.” She paired them with landscapes of different time periods to show the breadth of artists approaching the same subject matter. She also grouped together several other series, some with animals (birds and horses) and some with simple shapes.
In some cases the works are preparatory drawings for works that are scaled up, but sometimes these are the final works. Ruth Vollmer’s sculptural work “Oscule,” in wax, is a preparatory study for a bronze in the same size. “She was testing the material,” says O’Reilly.
The smallest work in the show is Berendina Buist’s “Wrevenge is rong, Eye for a Tooth and Tooth for an Eye” — in fact the title is bigger than the work, a pupil and a tooth on toothpick-size pedestals.
Among the largest icons of our state are those oil refineries. In a section of urban landscapes, Robert Kogge shows those tanks reigning over a slice of the state at dusk, reflecting white cylindrical forms in a sliver of what could be water or oil spill.
O’Reilly hopes the small works will lead viewers to the museum’s larger exhibit of permanent works in “American Perspectives,” where there is a study for a Charles Ward mural. There is also a large canvas of Paterson — also known as Silktown — by Bluemner. That artist traveled to Europe and, exposed to modernism, returned with a new intensity of color, exploring cubism and prismatic color. In this painting his colors take on the brilliant hues of the dyes used in that city’s factories.
There’s also a large Joseph Stella painting of gas tanks belching black fumes against a blue sky. Back in “Size Matters,” Stella’s color pencil and watercolor sketches show the roots of how he developed his visual vocabulary that led to precisionism.
“These works are little gems,” says O’Reilly. “You can be having a bad day and come and look and suddenly all is right with the world.” And after our storms, a visit to the State Museum, where admission is always free, could be just the thing.
Size Matters: Small Works from the Fine Art Collection at the New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. On view through Sunday, December 30, Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Free. 609-292-6464 or www.newjerseystatemuseum.org.