Howard Simon: Modern American Woodcuts
At Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, in Overton Park, through Jan. 27.
Call 901-544-6200 or visit brooksmuseum.org.
"Modern American Woodcuts" is too generic a subtitle for the beautiful little show of Howard Simon's work assembled by Marilyn Masler, associate registrar at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
It's true that Simon's life — 1902-1979 — spanned the era of Modernism in 20th Century art, but his training tended toward the conservative, and as a well-known illustrator, particularly in the 1930s and '40s, his style fell into the Regionalist camp of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
Having said that, though, I'll add that no one interested in the history of illustration and printmaking in the United States should neglect this exhibition, which will be displayed in the museum's intimate Goodman Gallery through Jan. 27. Simon's mastery of the depiction of light and shadow in the woodcut medium offers virtuoso effects, and his sense of composition in this generally small format, influenced by the flattening of perspective in 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, reveals how much tension and balance among forms and elements can be accomplished in a circumscribed space.
As associate registrar at the Brooks, Masler records and keeps track on the museum's collection, a position that gives her thorough knowledge about what the Brooks owns. She used that familiarity to organize this gem of an exhibition, drawn primarily from the bequests of Isaac L. Myers in 1961 and Babette M Becker in 1987.
Simon was studying at the Academie Julian in Paris when he met fellow student Charlie Mae Hogue. They returned to America and homesteaded at her ancestral lands in the Arkansas Ozarks from 1930 to 1935, and the proximity to the Ozark inhabitants and their ways and folklore provided Simon with a trove of narrative and visual themes, epitomized in the autobiography "Back Yonder" (1932), written by Simon's father-in-law Wayman Hogue. The young artist produced the woodcut illustrations for the book in the Regionalist style that includes, as in an Ozark tall tale, elements of exaggeration that lend sentience to the landscape of trees and mountains and cabins and an organic quality that gives each composition a unique sense of rhythm.
The exhibition consists of 21 pieces that touch not only on Simon's experience in the Ozarks but on his extensive career as an illustrator of commercial and fine edition books, examples of which Masler borrowed from libraries in the area, so we can see both the woodblock print and the result in the intended volume. Besides a copy of "Back Yonder," visitors to the show will observe Simon's versatility in Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh," "The Plays of Anton Chekhov" and a beautiful "Lyrics of Francois Villon," published by the Limited Editions Club in 1933.
Another commission that Simon filled came from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, for which the artist produced a woodcut series of rather stately portraits of composers — Henry Hadley, Stephen Foster, Edward MacDowell and Ethelbert Nevin — in 1938.
Sometimes the most interesting, if not insightful exhibitions are the small out-of-the-way shows that museums organize and that hover at the periphery of the major exhibitions that get all the attention. "Howard Simon: Modern American Woodcuts" is one of those.