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Depression-era art for the New Depression

Posted on 08/31/2020 at 12:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

Who Am I?, the newly opened exhibition at the Christian Petersen Art Museum, was created out of necessity and change, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of a planned loaned exhibition. It came from of an idea I had been working through for several months. The University Museums’ permanent collection is large and the diversity of materials, makers, and objects is a perfect opportunity to present how the works of art can inspire unique interpretations by those viewing the art.

As a curator, I am most often building upon the artist’s interpretation or a highly researched examination of a work of art’s history and intent to create an exhibition that tells a holistic story for visitors. A key aspect of University Museums’ mission is to develop visual literacy and learning skills for students across campus using the art in the permanent collection, allowing students to create their own interpretations from what they see and how they read a work of art. I wanted the exhibition to examine the idea of individual interpretation, not simply just the Museums’ or a curator’s voice, but the voices of the artists and members of the Iowa State and Ames community. 

In the end, about 40 faculty, staff, and community members agreed to participate and write interpretations about selected works of art. Their responses are beautiful, personal, deeply moving, and a reflection of the world we are living in right now. For this first post about Who Am I?, I begin with a pair of historic prints by Louis Lozowick, made in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. While my interpretation gives some background on the artist along with my reflections on the imagery, the companion interpretation by Dr. Simon Cordery, Chair and Professor of History, is exceptionally reflective on the emotions of that period and the similarity to those felt today amid a worldwide pandemic. Each interpretation in the exhibition is unique, derived from personal experiences and lenses, adding layers of meaning and understanding to each work of art that will both inform visitors and, I hope, inspire their own interpretations.

IMAGE ABOVE: Subway Station, 1936 by Louis Lozowick (Russian – American, 1892–1973). Lithograph. Gift of Lee Lozowick. Transferred from Applied Art Department. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM82.99

 

Interpretations

Urban cityscapes and skyscrapers became the best-known visual language of artist Louis Lozowick (1892–1973). Born in the Ukraine, he began art school in Kiev and immigrated to the United States in 1906. We can only imagine the effect those first views of New York City had on the young art student, but we can assume the power and strength of the city must have captured his imagination. After serving abroad with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, Lozowick was discharged in 1919 and spent several formative years traveling throughout Europe. Befriending Russian avant-garde artists such as El Lissitzky, he began to focus on machines and industry in his art, aligning him with the American Precisionist art movement of the 1920s. A master of lithography, a printmaking method, his images of the 1930s honed in upon the city as his muse. Here, in one print, we see a somewhat bird’s eye view of a subway station, a mass transit system that has become emblematic of life in the city, spied upon by the artist through the industrial steel of a bridge or construction site. In the other print, the growing New York City skyline is dramatically lit by a thunderous storm above. The power of nature dueling with the power of man. Both prints speak to Lozowick’s fascination with the changing industrial landscape of the city in his spare visual style, not with coldness, but rather a reverence for what can be built when humans work together.

Adrienne Gennett
Associate Curator of Collections and Education, University Museums

 

Depression-era art for the New Depression. The storm clouds are gathering, the people are leaving. But for the brave, the fortunate and the desperate, the leaving is an adventure, a path to tomorrow, across the Hudson to freedom from the temple-like subway station pulling commuters to their temporary destinies and skyscrapers buffeted by clouds and lightning. The city, frail beneath nature’s power, will be swept away but, as the floods rise in the tunnels and the buildings crumble, freedom awaits. It’s the freedom of the open fields, of wide skies, of self-sufficiency, of small but welcoming and inclusive communities, of exploded expectations and destroyed prejudices. It’s the freedom of a place for everyone, of places, yes, but of neither status nor stasis. It’s the freedom of potential realized, of an economy and machinery and politics employed for people not the other way round, of a shift from black and white to multihued. It is a turn away from the towers and the girders and the promise of Heaven to a place under the sun on earth, to the future now. From our New Depression, Hope.

Dr. Simon Cordery
Chair and Professor, History

 

IMAGE ABOVE: Storm Over Manhattan, 1936 by Louis Lozowick (Russian – American, 1892–1973). Lithograph. Gift of Lee Lozowick. Transferred from Applied Art Department. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM82.100


Want to see all of the objects in the Who Am I? exhibition and read their interpretations? Check out the Online Galley Guide.

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