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Monday, June 1, 2009

Underappreciated Modernists

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Starting June 6, the Milwaukee Art Museum's Baker/Rowland Gallery will present two exhibitions, pairing early-20th-century fine art with extraordinary decorative art. Experimentation, innovation and exotic blends of international influences from the early 1900s will be seen throughout the gallery in these eclectic American masterworks.

"The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" presents more than 40 pieces by this craftsman from Buffalo, N.Y., demonstrating his unmatched take on decorative arts. Rohlfs, a pattern maker and Shakespearean actor, fell in love while reciting a poem to Anna Katharine Green, one of the highest-paid female authors of the late-19th century. Buffalo's thriving artistic community cheered the marriage, as Green's income allowed Rohlfs to experiment with furniture-making, beginning in 1888 with a settee for their home.

With designs, construction methods and techniques that defied the labels of Mission, Arts and Crafts, or Art Nouveau, Rohlfs marketed a hall chair and desk through the retail giant Marshall Field & Co. in 1900-but without great success. Yet the profit from Green's mystery novels allowed Rohlfs the freedom to construct his imaginative designs in oak, chestnut and mahogany. The exquisite Tall Clock, a piece on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcases his inimitable mind-set.

The gallery walls detail Rohlfs' and Green's domestic life, which included raising three children, and defines their creative collaboration using private papers such as diaries, correspondence, photographs and travelogues given to Rohlfs' great-granddaughter, Liza Ortman. This unique cooperative effort between MAM, the Chipstone Foundation and the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation provides fascinating insight into what guest curator Joseph Cunningham describes as "Rohlfs' world." He says the exhibition allows you to "enter another world [and] lose your sense of time and place."

In addition to Rohlfs' furniture, MAM showcases "The Eight and American Modernisms," which tracks the careers of eight urban realists beginning with their joint exhibition of 63 paintings held at Macbeth Gallery (New York City) in 1908. From that date forward, these eight artists¾Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan¾evolved into painters who experimented on canvas and paper in a manner similar to Rohlfs' furniture.

"The Eight" includes more than 75 works of art-spanning oils, prints and drawings-that traverse the time period from 1907 through 1957, when American Art was expanding. A variety of programming with gallery talks by guest curators will examine these underappreciated modernists. A symposium on Saturday, June 20, titled "What's Modern About American Art, 1900-1930?" will feature national experts to help cross the bridge between the two exhibitions. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Both exhibits run June 6 through Aug. 23 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.