New Orleans has a lot to be thankful for when it comes to American art.
From its foundation in 1911, the New Orleans Museum of Art has always made art by American artists — in particular, artists from the American South — a focus of its mission.
This month, a new exhibition at NOMA gives that collection of American art its due.
Spanning more than two centuries of artistic production in the United States, “Visions of US: American Art at NOMA” includes more than 125 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and mixed media pieces.
The result is a show that demonstrates the tremendous breadth and depth of the museum’s American art holdings, and it’s nothing short of revelatory.
According to exhibition curator Katie Pfohl, putting the show together involved many trips to the museum’s storerooms to seek out hidden gems from its collection.
“We wanted not only to show works from our collection that haven’t been exhibited for a long time,” Pfohl said, “but also an opportunity to put those works in dialogue with one another.”
Taken together, those dialogues tell a story about the important contributions of southern artists to the history of American art, which, according to Pfohl, tends to concentrate on places like New York and New England to the exclusion of places like New Orleans.
“It’s one of the first exhibitions in the country to place art from Louisiana in the larger context of American art as a whole,” she said.
Much of the show’s strength stems from the juxtaposition of better-known art and artists with more obscure works. A powerful example comes early on in a gallery devoted to the development of portraiture in American art in the 19th century.
Nestled between more ostentatious paintings is an unassuming portrait by German-born artist François Fleischbein of an anonymous free woman of color in a lace-collared dress. Although her identity is unknown, her distinctive features — especially the captivating sparkle in her eyes — leave no doubt that we’re looking at a real person.
Other sections in the show are arranged into thematic groups that explore subjects like landscape, abstraction and the influence of European styles upon an emerging American artistic sensibility. It’s a testament to the richness of the museum’s collection that “Visions of US” is able to explore so many avenues in such detail.
Standout pieces later in the show include not only marquee highlights like a quietly stunning Jackson Pollack and a portrait of a glamorously brooding Mick Jagger by Andy Warhol but discoveries like a colorful jazz-inspired abstract painting by William T. Williams and a quilt by self-taught Louisiana artist Clementine Hunter, which Pfohl juxtaposes near a knockout combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg to the benefit of both.
And the show isn’t limited to just objects. On Friday afternoons throughout the end of January, on the lawn outside the building, the museum will recreate a seminal performance piece by artist Dennis Oppenheim, originally staged at NOMA in 1970.
It’s moments like those that make “Visions of US” necessary viewing this season, not just for a more complete understanding of American art but to discover how many great examples of it New Orleans is fortunate enough to have.
John d’Addario can be reached at email@example.com.