Cleveland Artists Foundation: Can the Phoenix Fly Again?

Viktor Schreckengost (1906-2008), Moroccan Lute, 1934 oil on canvas, 35 3/8 X 27 3/4 inches, Gift of-Artist. Image courtesy of Cleveland Artists Foundation.

In the forty years since it was founded in 1984, the Cleveland Artist’s Foundation has gone through many ups and downs, but has been the one exhibiting organization in the city to focus consistently on the art-life of Cleveland.  Over the years it has produced a very impressive series of scholarly and also very readable publications on Cleveland art, devoted to themes such as watercolor, the art of the WPA, African-American Art, and industrial design, and to artists such as Carl Gaertner, Paul Travis, Edris Eckhardt, Joseph O’Sickey, Ed Mieczkowski, and many others.  Some of these have been written by nationally renowned art historians, such as William Robinson and Karal Ann Marling. 

Sadly, however, over the last few years, the organization has foundered, both in management and vision, particularly since its unfortunate name-change to ArtNeo.   Fortunately, it’s recently been reorganized, with a new board and a new infusion of financial support.  It’s back to its old name, and in many ways its essential mission seems more pertinent than ever. 

Can the Phoenix fly again?  This is one of the implicit questions of the current exhibition at the Cleveland Artist’s Foundation:  From Kokoon to Butterfly:  A Century of Remarkable Cleveland Art., which will open on January 19 at the 78th Street Studios.  The hope is that the show will inspire viewers to think about the need for a center for Cleveland art, and to reflect on what form it should take.

Over the years The Cleveland Artists Foundation has assembled quite an impressive collection of Cleveland art, and this collection has provided the basis for the current show.  It’s by no means a perfect collection, since it’s been assembled rather haphazardly.  But it tells a story that you can’t see told anywhere else, and it contains some wonderful things, some by artists who enjoy national fame, others by figures who are virtually unknown.

Modernism in Cleveland burst into existence around 1908, with the creation of the Kokoon Club, which held a rather amazing costume ball each year, which introduced the city to radical modern art.  Even before the Armory Show, there were artists in Cleveland exploring Fauvism, Cubism, and other modern styles—the one place this was happening in the United States, except New York.  And Cleveland was also home to great artists in other media, such as the poet Hart Crane and the architect William Lescaze.

Like the legendary Phoenix, Cleveland as an art center has sometimes flown high and sometimes crashed and burned.  But over the hundred years or more that have elapsed since Kokoon Club times, Cleveland has produced quite a few world-class artists, such as William Sommer, Viktor Schreckengost, Julian Stanczak, and arguably also Charles Burchfield, who produced much of his work elsewhere, but got his artistic training in Cleveland, and developed his distinctive style here.  It has also been home to a surprisingly large number of artists who, while not at quite the same level, produced some truly remarkable work. 

Notably, the big art institutions in Cleveland, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, have largely missed out on this phenomenon.  The Cleveland Museum of Art has largely turned its back on local art since Sherman Lee took over the directorship of the Museum in 1958.  Due to the vision of the late Bob Bergman, Viktor Schreckengost finally received a retrospective at the Cleveland Museum at the late age of 94, but Julian Stanczak has never had a major retrospective in Cleveland, although he worked across the street from the CMA, and someone with a bow standing on the roof of the museum could easily have shot an arrow into his studio.  Dana Schutz, who studied at the CIA, had to become an art-world superstar before her work gained attention in Cleveland. 

Perhaps it’s also worth noting that artists who do not become superstars often produced excellent and interesting work and contribute to the cultural life of the community.  If you want to have a creatively vibrant city, a lively artistic community plays an important role in drawing gifted people, and encourages them to stay. 

Kokoon Artists Bal Papillon Invitation, by James Harvey Minter

There are wonderful examples in this show of works by figures such as William Sommer and Viktor Schreckengost, and there’s an impressive line-up of Kokoon Club posters.  But perhaps what’s most exciting, intriguing, and thought-provoking about a show such as this is that it’s full of surprises.  For example, there’s a remarkable watercolor of a tumbled down barn that looks just like a very good early watercolor by Charles Burchfield, except that it turns out that it was painted by Paul Travis, who was a good friend of Burchfield’s in his early years. 

It’s also full of works that challenge our ability to judge quality.  For example, there’s a large strange painting of classical figures against the ocean by Frank Wilcox titled Ultima Thule.  Should we see this as an exercise in outmoded classicism or as strangely similar to the surreal but classically inspired works of Giorgio De Chirico?  While there are some masterworks by acknowledge masters such as Bill Sommer and my old friend Viktor (who was just about everyone else’s good friend as well), to my mind some of these lesser- known works provide the most fascinating aspect of the show.

When it was founded, the Cleveland Artists Foundation largely focused on Cleveland artists of the mid twentieth century, such as Paul Travis and Frank Wilcox, and indeed, its founders were largely children or students of figures such as this.  But time moves forward, and the current exhibition also includes some wonderful paintings by figures such as Dexter Davis, Michelangelo Lovelace, and a sculpture by Christen Newall.   This, of course, is just a small taste of the wealth of exciting art that’s being produced in the Cleveland right now.  In the future, we’d like to do more to keep up with Cleveland’s lively contemporary scene.    

While it contains some remarkable things, it should also be clear that the collection of the Cleveland Artists Foundation is less than definitive or perfectly balanced.  There are some pretty obvious gaps if you want to get a full picture of Cleveland’s artistic achievement, such as a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost or a major painting by Julian Stanzcak.  One interesting mind-game to play while visiting this show is to think about what should be added to fill out this collection. 

Does the City of Cleveland deserve a center for the display of Cleveland art, both by past masters and by living artists?  What would be the ideal form of such a center?  That’s the question we’d like to pose.

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