CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show may be dead, but it refuses to go away, at least in the hearts and minds of those who will remember it and wish he comes back.
Opened by the museum in 1919, the May Show was for many years the pinnacle of the northeast Ohio art scene.
It was an annual juried exhibition of works submitted by regional artists, many of whom were either graduates or instructors at what is now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art.
The museum held the May Show almost flawlessly every year until 1993, when it abandoned the tradition in favor of room on its busy schedule for different, more encompassing exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
It’s impossible to say what we’re missing by not having the May Show, and it’s unlikely to make a return, which is a good thing. There are many more places where Northeastern Ohio art can be seen and enjoyed than at the height of the May Show.
But for one more week, the WOLFS Gallery in Beachwood offers a selective and enjoyable panoramic glimpse of what the show once offered.
The exhibition evokes the May Show spirit with many black and white photos of the museum’s original installations. Works currently on display at WOLFS are circled in red in the photos, authenticating their May Show legacy. You can also view an extensive collection of museum newsletters with articles on the May Show.
But the main attraction are the several dozen examples of works featured in the exhibition from its early years through the early 1990s. Some were big winners, and many deserve renewed attention, regardless of their May Show pedigree.
In contrast, the exhibit includes a fair number of works that were recently featured in the exhibit titled “Cleveland’s Golden Age of Art,” which closed at the Western Reserve Historical Society on April 4.
This category includes works by industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost and Cleveland School artists Frank Wilcox, Elmer Novotny, Clara Deike and Rolf Stoll. The presence of these works dilutes the sense of discovery that is the main reason to see the new exhibition at WOLFS.
But there are discoveries to be made, and that is the reason to visit.
Among the most compelling and unfamiliar works currently on display at WOLFS is a powerful and powerfully bizarre portrait of Clarence Carter by William Stolte, the former Cleveland alderman, who posed in 1932, the year the painting won first prize at the May Show.
According to his obituary in The Plain Dealer, Stolte, who died in April 1934, after being injured in a car accident (before wearing seat belts), was a respected Democrat who represented Ward 19, encompassing today’s college circle, during the World War One.
“He was a tall man physically,” noted the obituary, “and he was considered a councilman of high caliber.”
Carter (1904-2000), an important 20th-century artist whose work blended realism and subjects from the American stage with an uncanny surrealism of the twilight zone, portrayed Stolte in a pale gray three-piece suit whose pleats and pleats have an almost polished metallic appearance. quality.
Stolte’s pose, with her legs apart and her hands on her knees, shows off her ample belly – an unflattering pose. Even weirder is Stolte’s sleazy expression as he gazes to his left, casting a wary, sideways glance at someone or something out of frame.
Was Carter satirizing Stolte as the Babbitt of the Midwest? Or was it somehow mocking its owner? Carter rented accommodation in Stolte according to a 1971 catalog available on the Internet.
It is difficult to say what prompted the unusual psychological distribution of the portrait. Nonetheless, it is a powerful painting, as the Cleveland Museum of Art noted in its Bulletin article on the 1932 May Show.
Another compelling choice in the WOLFS exhibit is “The Red Couch,” a second Lois Rossbach Ellis winner from the 1954 May Show.
Born in 1925, Ellis was an acclaimed Cleveland entertainer who earned positive reviews from The Plain Dealer throughout the 1950s and 1960s, before moving to New York’s Greenwich Village with her husband and young daughter.
WOLFS’ painting is a highly refined exercise in the manner of the French Nabis du Paris painters of the 1890s, who emphasized intimate subjects painted with flat shapes and patterns influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints.
Ellis’ painting depicts a woman reclining in a pale aquamarine dress on a red sofa against patterned red wallpaper. Ellis’ drawing of his subject’s hands and face is tender and exquisite. The painting evokes an atmosphere of serenity and grace.
Not so with another startling work in the exhibit, “Empress,” a chillingly erotic 1925 painting by Stoll, a native of Heidelberg, Germany, who moved to Cleveland in the 1920s.
Painted in a dry, precise and sharp style, the work represents four women of different races posed naked or dressed in headdresses or hairstyles of slightly Turkish, Art Deco and Japanese origin. Three of the women stand around a nude white woman depicted seated on a golden throne with an Art Deco-style helmet on her head that anticipates the decorations of the Chrysler Building in New York, built in 1928.
Gallery owner Michael Wolf said the painting had never been exhibited at the May Show, but he included it anyway, arguing that it should or should have been exhibited. With its strange cross-cultural symbolism, it is a work that calls for deeper explanation. The show provides an opportunity to reflect on exactly what Stoll had in mind when he painted it.
The most refreshing aspect of the WOLFS exhibit is that it firmly embraces the postwar decades of the May Show, a period that has received less study than the prewar heyday of the Cleveland School, as the city’s artists were then known.
“Dark Lady,” a near-abstract, quasi-photorealistic painting by Christopher Pekoc, shown at the 1978 May Show, depicts scraps of fabric, paper, and leather swirling in space.
Painted with a smooth, airbrushed surface, the painting inhabits an uneasy and enticing visual realm between abstraction and reality. Its textures seem oddly plausible, but also beyond logical comprehension, like images seen in a dream.
Another intriguing work is Gretchen Oldfather Troibner’s 1988 “Dancers”, a painting of women dancing with androgynous, sexually ambiguous partners amid brown tube-trunked trees in a dark, eerily schematic landscape outside a white clapboard house.
Also not to be overlooked is “Head Doubt (Part 2)”, a trompe l’oeil watercolor and mixed-media drawing by the longtime art professor at Cleveland State University, and now professor emeritus, George Mauersberger, which he exhibited at the May Spectacle in 1990.
The artwork depicts newspaper clippings, sketches, and an extension pasted or glued onto a realistic-looking wall made of grainy wooden planks. At the bottom of the wall, a plastic cup supports a piece of cardboard with a black and white photograph pasted on it. The plastic cup is an illusionist trick used by the artist to make it look like a real object stuck in the viewer’s space.
Wolfs did a favor by exhibiting such works, along with those of other postwar Cleveland artists, including Kenneth Nevadomi and the late Richard Andres, an Abstract Expressionist whose work will be the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the gallery.
As I mentioned in my review of the exhibit at the Historical Society, Northeastern Ohio lacks a visible, well-funded center of gravity for the study and appreciation of regional art. . Among other things, the field needs a deeper understanding of the connections between early and mid-20th century Cleveland art and the more recent decades represented by Nevadomi, Pekoc, Mauersberger, and others.
The Cleveland Museum of Art marked the city’s bicentennial in 1996 with a large, excellent, and definitive exhibit on the first 150 years of art history in northeast Ohio. The museum did not follow up with a comprehensive exhibit of post-war Cleveland art. It should.
The WOLFS exhibition, particularly the less familiar and more contemporary works, indicates the need for a fuller and more holistic understanding of the art of the region.