If the nature of American art is diversity, then few eras were more diverse artistically than the 1930s. Political and socially conscious art jostled with European-influenced surrealism, cubism and abstraction, while regionalism asserted its home-ground rectitude and industrial art reflected the realities of capitalism during the Great Depression.
All of these streams come together in the exhibition "Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection," which opens Sunday at Dixon Gallery and Gardens for display through July 15.
Organized by the Dixon's associate curator, Julie Novarese Pierotti, the exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog and will travel to five other museums until January 2014.
While the selection of 68 works ranges chronologically from about 1912 to 1949, more than half of the paintings -- 36 -- were produced between 1930 and 1940, providing a portrait of a tumultuous era that resulted in tremendous social and cultural change in America.
The collection inspired a previous exhibition organized by the Dixon, "Regional Dialect: American Scene Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection." That show emphasized the Midwestern regional aspect of the couple's collecting, while "Modern Dialect" broadens the scope to include different strains of modernism and artists who have no connection to the Midwest.
One of the exhibition's gratifying aspects is to observe how such movements as surrealism and abstraction penetrated the American heartland and received highly individual interpretations. The reverse flow is also true; all the good artists weren't in New York.
Visitors to the exhibition will see how early modernism's almost sole preoccupation with form and color, even in representational art, gives way to the psychological extremity of surrealism or, surrealism's opposite, socially conscious and outright political art. For many of the artists in the 1930s -- and that includes fiction writers, poets, playwrights, composers and choreographers as well as visual artists -- a political stance, often verging on socialism or communism, was as necessary to their craft as a brush or typewriter or musical staff. In the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, in terms of this exhibition's scope, a reaction against the overtly political surfaced in the emergence of abstraction.
This fairly schematic outline of cause and effect, influence and reaction, is amplified by a viewing of the exhibition, so that visitors can compare such virtually simultaneous and widely various productions as Abraham Harriton's realistic and somber "6th Avenue Unemployment Agency"; Louis Ribak's expressionist "Nocturne," which depicts hooded KKK members rushing through a dark forest; James Britton Gantt's folklike "Side Show," a carnival slice-of-life; Ernest Fiene's stark "Mill Town in Winter"; Clarence Holbrook Carter's eerie and dreamlike "Down the River"; and Stuart Walker's lyrically abstract "Movement," all painted in or around 1937.
The result of juxtaposing these paintings is not confusion but a gratifying reflection of the independence and individualism of American artists dedicated to their craft and vision during a particularly difficult decade of the country's history. One understands that even under stress the amplitude of American art resembles Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp," a cry of anarchic and exceptional self-sufficiency, with everything to prove but nothing to fear.
"Modern Dialect: American Painting from the John and Susan Horseman Collection"
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through July 15. Sunday at 2 p.m., the Dixon hosts an interview with John and Susan Horseman by Andrew J. Walker, director of the Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum of Art. Copies of the exhibition catalog will be available for purchase and signing. Call (901) 761-5250 or visit Dixon.org.