Frist Art Museum Presents Major Survey of Modern Art Created in the American South


January 26–April 28, 2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (November 16, 2023)—The Frist Art Museum presents Southern/Modern, the first comprehensive survey of paintings and works on paper created in the American South between 1913 and 1955 that reflect a period of change and upheaval across the region. Organized by the Mint Museum in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art, the exhibition will be on view in the Frist’s Ingram Gallery from January 26 through April 28, 2024.

Southern/Modern features more than one hundred works by artists such as Carroll Cloar, Aaron Douglas, Caroline Durieux, Will Henry Stevens, Alma Thomas, and others who worked in states below the Mason-Dixon line and as far west as the Mississippi River. It also includes artists from outside the South, such as Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine de Kooning, all of whom spent time at North Carolina’s experimental Black Mountain College, as well as Thomas Hart Benton, Elizabeth Catlett, and others whose works reflect on Southern experiences from a distance.

“The exhibition explores the history of socially and stylistically progressive art in the American South,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Treating a subject long neglected by art historians and museums outside the region, Southern/Modern shows how in the South as elsewhere, the goal of modernism was to lead the way toward a more open-minded and equitable society.” To explore this idea, the exhibition curators Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American art at the Mint Museum, and Dr. Martha R. Severens, an independent scholar, included important works by women and people of color, with styles ranging from American scene painting and regionalism to cubism and abstraction.

Thematic groupings of works weave together the region’s rich cultures, telling stories of agriculture and industry, class division and racial injustice, natural beauty, and stylistic innovation. The exhibition begins with a section titled “Southerners,” a look into the lives of people engaged in everyday activities—chatting, out for a stroll, or shopping. While challenging stereotypes often ascribed to people from this region, this section does illustrate the racial divide that has marked the South and the nation for centuries, with only a few images showing Black and white people together in the same setting. 

Works in “Landscape as Metaphor” explore the South’s rural and agricultural identity through scenes of natural beauty from the Ozarks to the Carolina low country. Several paintings also feature views of environmental abuse and neglect, the desolate landscape a metaphor for the hardscrabble lives of the people living in these places. For artists in this section, says Scala, the land was not simply defined as topography, but “is a stage for memory, legend, and history. Exemplifying this is Carroll Cloar’s A Story Told by My Mother, illustrating family lore in which a dreamlike landscape is the setting for an encounter between the ethereal figures of a woman and a panther.”

“Religion and Ritual” includes several works visualizing the cohering power of faith in Black communities. Several artists were inspired to depict Black spirituals in works such as John McCrady’s version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Malvin Gray Johnson’s Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Artists in the section “Segregation and Jim Crow” portray a darker side of Black experience in the South, creating powerful indictments of segregation in public life, on the beach, in the military, and in the town square. References to racial violence include Loïs Mailou Jones’s powerful portrait Mob Victim (Meditation) and Eldzier Cortor’s devastating painting Southern Souvenir, representing two fragmented Black bodies as if they were shattered statuary.

Laborers—farmers, coal miners, fishermen, and factory workers—are spotlighted in the next section. During the Great Depression, many artists sought to bring the dire conditions of the working poor to wider public attention, as seen in Thomas Hart Benton’s Ploughing it Under and John Biggers’s drawing The Harvesters. Other works depict the effects of industrialization in cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, as tenant farmers frequently moved there seeking better working conditions only to be trapped in industries that had moved south in search of cheap labor. Yet, the period covered by the exhibition saw tremendous growth in the region’s economy and a dramatic expansion of its cities leading to a revitalization that continues unabated today in places like Nashville.

The final two sections, “Planting New Seeds: Colonies and Schools” and “Many Modernisms,” feature works that are more abstract by artists from outside the South or Southerners who had gone to cities like New York and Paris to learn about new movements and experience firsthand the works of luminaries such as Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Several artists in this section traveled south to teach at schools like the University of Georgia, Richmond Polytechnic Institute, and most notably Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, which boasted an international faculty and was lauded for its interdisciplinary approach to modern practices.

Full of vibrant, often emotionally charged works, Southern/Modern shows how in the South, as elsewhere, modern artists linked social and aesthetic progress, hoping to change the way people saw their world. Scala writes, “While the paintings in the exhibition’s last sections reflect aspects of the region, their subjects are often so generalized that they could be from anywhere—modernism in the South was truly a part of an international phenomenon. Yet, what distinguishes the art of this region from other modernisms is the story that it tells of a transformative period in America’s cultural identity. How does progressive art, which for many people symbolized the nation’s trajectory toward modernization, survive and even thrive in a part of the country known for its resistance to change?”

Exhibition Publication

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by the University of North Carolina Press, containing more than 175 rich illustrations and a dozen essays by contributing curators and leading art scholars.

Exhibition Tour

Southern/Modern debuted at the Georgia Museum of Art in June 2023. After its presentation at the Frist, it will travel to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis in July 2024 before opening at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October 2024.

Opening Program 

Thursday, January 25 
Curators’ Perspectives: Southern/Modern 
A conversation with Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman and Mark Scala 
6:30 p.m. 
Auditorium Free; first come, first seated.

Join Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala and organizing curator of Southern/Modern Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman for this conversation about modern art as a progressive force in the American South between 1913 and 1955. Following William Faulkner’s famous statement “the past is not dead, the past isn’t even past,” the curators will discuss the exhibition in the context of both history and today’s South, considering such themes as southern identity, the environment, race and class, and the role of universities and museums supporting creativity and innovation throughout the region.

Jonathan Stuhlman is the senior curator of American art at the Mint Museum, where he has worked since 2006. He also served, from 2013 through 2019, as the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. He previously held curatorial positions at the Norton Museum of Art, the University of Virginia Art Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Stuhlman received his BA from Bowdoin College, his MA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his PhD from the University of Virginia. He has organized and contributed to the accompanying catalogues of numerous traveling exhibitions, including: Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling around Abstraction; From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland; Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy; Seeing the World Within: Charles Seliger in the 1940s; Connecting the World: The Panama Canal at 100; John Leslie Breck: American Impressionist; American Made: Painting and Sculpture from the DeMell Jacobsen Collection; and most recently, Southern/Modern.

Exhibition Credit

Southern/Modern is organized by The Mint Museum in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art. Lead support is generously provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional funding comes from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Southern/Modern was also made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alfred and Betsy Brand Fund at The Mint Museum.

Supporter Acknowledgment

Platinum Sponsor: HCA Healthcare/TriStar Health

Supported in part by the Frist Art Museum’s 2024 Gala patrons

The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by The Frist Foundation, Metro Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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