The history of the art of the Americas is as complex as the history of the region itself. The San Diego Museum of Art’s collection consists of over four thousand works of art from the Americas. It is a formidable collection, but as with most museum collections, we can learn as much from what we do not see—from what is absent—as from what we do see. This history is inherently tied to the visual culture that it has produced—some of which has been embraced in generations past and some that is only now coming to the forefront of institutional recognition. Great strides have been made in rectifying the occlusion of groups or peoples from the history of the art of the Americas, but there is still much to be done. We encourage you to enjoy, explore, and question what you see as well as what you do not.
This section explores the notion of identity among some of the many cultures that are woven together in the cultural fabric of the Americas. Across borders, and through migrations and displacement of populations, how one perceives oneself and identifies culturally is often fraught with historical and social complexities.
Locally, in addition to acknowledging that Balboa Park stands on ancestral Kumeyaay land, it is also worth bearing in mind that San Diego is home to eighteen reservations, the largest number of any county in the United States. Furthermore, The San Diego/Tijuana area is the largest bi-national region in all of the Americas, with over five million residents, and people of Latino and Hispanic origin comprise more than thirty percent of the San Diego population. The great diversity and creativity of artists throughout these areas and beyond provides a wealth of content for self-reflection. Works will be removed and others rotated into the display over time to give exposure to a wider range of artists and allow works on paper to rest from light exposure.
This room is intended to provide an area for contemplation, centered on Cauleen Smith’s video Flori Canta, created for the Museum in 2020. Initially commissioned as a response to an early seventeenth-century painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (on display in Gallery 18), Smith recreated that work’s window, with its strikingly modern dark background, in her Los Angeles studio. In Flori Canta, the artist places various similarly humble objects on the windowsill, which extend into the viewer’s space, and fills the void with light and color, while a variety of music drifts in and out, inviting thoughts about memory and the passage of time.
This video is paired with other works of art in which artists have explored spirituality through the void, color, and light, as well as the synthesis between the visual arts and sound.This Sánchez Cotán is from a series of similar compositions, one of which, now lost, consisted of a completely empty windowsill, created shortly before the artist gave up painting to join a monastery.
The Ashcan School (1891–1918) was the first movement in this country to break aesthetically from the European tradition, rebel against Impressionism, and focus instead on the social fabric of the general population. With bold, quick brushwork, this group depicted the harsher realities of modern life, including scenes of urban poverty, prostitution, alienation, and youth on the streets. Originally including members Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and Theresa Bernstein, the term “Ashcan” was extended to include George Bellows and Edward Hopper, though Hopper, who focused on depictions of stillness and alienation, rejected the association.
The Ashcan movement paralleled the “muckraking” literature of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, who drew attention to urban poverty and the crisis of public health. Photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were also associated with increasing public awareness of post-industrial working conditions, leading to impactful legislation concerning child labor, work safety, and a minimum wage. This gallery highlights Ashcan works in dialogue with more recent artworks that continue to focus on the well-being of society.
Featured at top right: Hugo Crosthwaite, A Tail of Two Cities, 2010. Drawing, pencil, charcoal, India ink on white latex painted on wood panel. Museum purchase. 2010.10.a-d.