By Christina Wood
Imagine a tropical sunset. Imagine a bridge reaching toward the horizon. Imagine a Seminole hunter aiming an arrow at his prey, an idle sailor sitting by the dock or a woman trimming the plants in her garden – underwater.
If you do, you will be imagining Florida as some of the artists in a new exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art have been doing for centuries.
The landscape of the state has changed dramatically since 18th-century naturalists first sought to portray its exotic beauty, but one thing has remained constant. As the 200-plus works of art presented in Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State clearly demonstrate, Florida is a never-ending source of wonder and inspiration that has attracted an intriguing variety of artists over the years.
“We seem to think that the interest in artists coming to Florida began 17 years ago with Art Basel, but in fact it began in the late 1700s with the explorer/naturalists who were traveling here,” says Irvin Lippman, the museum’s executive director.
From idealized landscapes to prison chain gangs, the new exhibition and the accompanying catalog explore the state’s history and its multifaceted identity through the eyes of artists.
“The subject hasn’t really been tackled, as far as looking at that continuum that goes from the late 1700s to the early 20th century,” Lippman says. “We focus so much now on the contemporary artists who are here in Florida.”
Imagining Florida presents a rich smorgasbord of artistic styles served up by an eclectic mix of artists. “You have Frederic Remington, who’s coming at the behest of ‘Harper’s’ to paint soldiers on their way to the Spanish-American War,” Lippman says. “And you have Winslow Homer, who has come to Florida because he says it’s the best fishing in America.”
Martin Johnson Heade’s magnolia blossoms and Laura Woodward’s fiery royal poincianas bloom in the Boca Museum’s galleries. A helicopter by Doris Lee hovers above Key West. Alfred Hair and Harold Newton represent Florida’s Highwaymen in the show.
The beautiful people posed for Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Breakers. John Collier, a pioneer in the use of photography for documenting ethnography in the 1940s, introduces us to Florida Crackers. Believing photography could be a tool for social reform, Lewis Hine photographed Florida’s cigar makers. And Bunny Yeager photographed Bettie Page in all her glory.
“As eclectic and diverse as we know [Florida] is politically and socially – and virtually every category you can imagine, it’s not surprising that it’s so diverse in its artmaking,” Lippman points out.
He admits he has a fondness for Bruce Mozert’s whimsical underwater photography from the 1950s. “They’re the most remarkable photographs. Whenever I walk through the exhibit, I seem to always stop right there to look at them again. They always put a smile on my face.”
Imagining Florida’s collection of paintings, photographs, and drawings dating from the 18th to the mid-20th century also includes the work of George Catlin, John Singer Sargent, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Milton Avery, Purvis Young, Doris Lee, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, William Bartram and George de Forest Brush, among others.
“What I find particularly fascinating is the work of Jules André Smith,” Lippman says. Smith was an artist, architect, writer and World War I veteran whose Art Research Studio in central Florida would provide a foundation for the Maitland Art Center. He often painted life in nearby Eatonville, the first all-black town to incorporate in the country and the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston. “There are wonderful depictions of that community in paintings.”
It took guest curators Jennifer Hardin and Gary Monroe three years to put the show together. Hardin who has a Ph.D. in Western art after 1750 from Princeton University, was responsible for the selection of paintings, prints, drawings and watercolors in the exhibition, which date from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century.
Hardin herself has found inspiration in Florida. Her work on the exhibition has prompted her to study of the role of place in artists’ works.
The photographs featured in Imagining Florida, as well as a section on material culture, were curated by Gary Monroe, a photographer in his own right and a professor at Daytona State College. Monroe has written 10 books about Florida art, including The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters.
To tell the story of artmaking in Florida, the curators worked with some of the country’s leading art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum, among others. There are also works on loan from art institutions across Florida and from private collections.
“It’s a terrific exhibition and I’d like to say that it’s really a landmark exhibition,” Lippman says. “The catalog certainly is a major statement about the art of Florida, something that really hasn’t been written about in as much depth as it should be. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a continuing conversation.”
Two additional exhibitions at the Boca Museum will provide even more to talk about.
“It’s also important to let people know that artists still find Florida a rich source of inspiration,” Lippman says. “So you’ll see on the ground floor an installation by Michael Smith called Excuse Me!?!…I’m Looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth.’”
Daniel Faust: Florida Photos from the 1980s can be seen on the museum’s second floor. Like the artists featured in Imagining Florida, Faust, a New York City-based photographer, is an explorer who has found inspiration in the Sunshine State. In the 1980s he made several trips to Florida, taking thousands of photographs of museums and tourist attractions around the state.
Faust’s solo show at the Boca Museum consists of an installation composed of 12 mural-sized sheets of archival photographic paper containing 658 images. The exhibition also includes some Instamatic snapshots he took in Florida when he was 9 years old as well as a series of images taken by his grandmother, Edith Faust.
“I tell folks that entering that gallery is sort of like entering the Twilight Zone,” Lippman says.
Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State is on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Mizner Park through March 24. Admission: $12, seniors $10, children 12 and under, free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500, or visit www.bocamuseum.org.