Reconstruction of trailblazing American painting exhibition coming to CAM

In the late 1970s, an exhibition of 41 evocative paintings sparked a commotion in the art world. Now, a reconstruction of that exhibition is coming to the Cincinnati Art Museum. “American Painting: The Eighties Revisited” will be on view from March 12–July 11.

Rare is the opportunity to revisit a cultural event from our past and interpret it anew. Thanks to the generous gift of art collectors Ronnie Levinson Shore and John Shore, the CAM has acquired 40 of the 41 paintings from the original exhibition. 

Nancy Graves (1939–1995), United States, “Strobia,” 1978, oil and encaustic on canvas, Gift of Ronnie and John Shore, 2018.195,© 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

When the show debuted at New York University’s Grey Gallery in 1979, it touched off a critical and spirited debate about the nature and direction of painting in America. In this new interpretation, visitors will have a chance to view work from some of the most iconic abstract painters of the late twentieth century – Nancy Graves, Sam Gilliam, Elizabeth Murray and Robert Moskowitz – and explore their own opinions regarding contemporary painting.

“These painters focused on formal concerns and on the material qualities of paint,” said Kate Bonansinga, director of the School of Art, College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati, and guest curator of the exhibition. “Many painters today continue with these foci, though the field has expanded considerably.”

When curator Barbara Rose first presented the show, she brought together the work of 41 virtually unknown young painters. Rose stood by her conviction that these artists were worthy of attention, and her prediction that abstraction would remain central to contemporary painting – an opinion controversial to this day.

Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007), United States, “Flesh, Earth and Sky,” 1979, Gift of Ronnie and John Shore, 2018.196, © 2019 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1984, after its highly publicized international tour, the Shores, natives of the Midwest, acquired the entire exhibition. This unorthodox, yet prescient, act speaks to the couple’s forward-thinking approach to collecting. Self-educated and knowledgeable in contemporary art, they identified with the vision of Rose’s selections and elected to keep the entire collection together. 

Now, with the perspective of nearly 40 years between their acquisition and their laudable donation of these powerful paintings, the Shores have made it possible for the public to share in the enjoyment of this collection, which has proven itself over time to document a pivotal point in the history of American painting.

“American Painting: The Eighties Revisited” will be on view in Galleries 301, 302, and 303 on the museum’s third floor. Admission is free. Photography is permitted, without flash.

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