Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie," landscapes by Constable and Turner: British art from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries will always be a hallmark of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Yet the institution's collection of American art, from the colonial period to the mid-20th century and beyond, has grown considerably in size and depth since the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation's core gift of 50 American paintings to the Huntington in 1979.
Now encompassing more than 12,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints and drawings and decorative artworks, the collection has prompted two major expansions of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The most recent opened to the public on Saturday, July 19.
Designed by architect Frederick Fisher, the expansion adds five new rooms in an area of the Scott Galleries formerly used for storage, increasing the available display space to 21,000 square feet. The new rooms feature thematic installations of more than 100 Huntington acquisitions, gifts and long-term loans that focus individually on American landscape, photographs, 1930s-era paintings, sculpture and decorative arts; geometric abstraction and Pop Art; and the Huntington's 2012 Robert Rauschenberg acquisition, "Global Loft (Spread)," on display with loans of other work by the artist from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Among the many works in the grouping of American landscapes are California impressionist Granville Redmond's vivid 1919 oil, "A Foothill Trail," with its swath of orange poppies; Georgia O'Keeffe's "Ghost Ranch Cliffs," modernist Henrietta Shore's anthropomorphic "Cypress Trees, Point Lobos" and a recent acquisition: Arthur Dove's abstract "Lattice and Awning."
The installation is intended to place California and Western landscapes "in a more national narrative," said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art. It represents "the first time that we've been able to talk about landscapes from California and the West in the galleries in a meaningful way."
The adjacent room highlights the Huntington's collection of photographs by groundbreaking modernist Edward Weston. It includes images of Death Valley, Yosemite, the Sierras and work inspired by Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Rarely seen due to their light sensitivity and their need to rest between installations, Smith said, selections from 500 vintage photographs printed by Weston for the Huntington in the 1940s will rotate for the next year.
One of the largest new galleries features art primarily from the 1930s, and includes a representation of the Huntington's broadening collection of works by African American artists. The centerpiece is the 22-foot-long, carved and gilded redwood pipe organ screen by Sargent Claude Johnson, alive with pastoral imagery of children, flora and fauna. On an adjacent wall, in contrast, is Johnson's subtle "Mask," a delicate female face worked in copper. Reginald Marsh's vigorous fresco, "The Locomotive," is here, as are two paintings by Charles White, on view for the first time at the Huntington: "Preacher" (1937) and "Soldier," White's dystopian depiction of a World War II sergeant. The latter is a 2014 gift from collectors Sandra and Bram Dijkstra.
Frank Stella's striking "Hiraqla Variation III" (1969), on loan from the Norton Simon, dominates one wall of the next new room. Here, too, are Edward Ruscha's "Hurting the Word Radio #2" from 1964; Louise Nevelson's Vertical Zag I (1968), another Norton Simon loan; as well as Frederick Hammersley's "See Saw" (1966), minimalist Tony Smith's painting "Untitled" (1960) and two-piece bronze sculpture "For W.A." (1969); and Andy Warhol's "Small Crushed Campbell's Soup Can (Beef Noodle)" (1962) and "Brillo Box" (1964) — both gifts from the estate of Robert Shapazian.
In the new Rauschenberg gallery, because the Huntington is a pilot partner in a loan bank program with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the artist's prints that accompany "Global Loft (Spread)," a 2012 acquisition, will rotate every six months.
The farthest gallery, where Sam Francis' monumental "Free Floating Clouds" (1980) hangs, is not new, but has been "changed a bit," Smith said, to focus "on the painterly expressions of abstraction in the 20th century." It includes works by Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn, again from the Norton Simon ("they've been great partners with this project for us," Smith said); and Lee Mullican's luminous "Peyote Candle," lent by the artist's widow, Luchita Hurtado.
When Smith first came to the Huntington in 2002, "the unwritten, semi-official acquisition policy had been not to use our limited acquisition funds to purchase anything made after 1945," she said. But with the Scott Galleries' first major expansion in 2009 from 6,800 square feet to more than 16,000, it was possible "to be opportunistic about gifts and long-term loans and dip a toe into the post-war period. Not to try to compete in any way with institutions that do that extremely well," Smith said, "but to help us expand the types of conversations we're able to have with the collections about art made in the United States into the 20th century."
If visitors have concerns that a growing focus on 20th-century American art will change the character of the Huntington, they needn't worry, Smith said.
"You want it to continue to feel like an estate, you want that house to feel elegant and refined and very serious. At the same time," she said, "I think there are very interesting things we might do." But contemporary programming without "ties or tethers to our collection," wouldn't make sense, Smith said.
"It's very important to us that work that comes in is work that has interesting conversations with the historic core of the collection."
Note: A companion exhibition in the Scott Galleries' Chandler Wing: "Highlights of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Huntington's Art Collections," will run through Jan. 5; and a new book, "American Made: Highlights from the Huntington Art Collections," commemorates the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries' 30th anniversary, and marks the first time that the Huntington has published a book focused on its American art holdings.
When: Summer hours through Labor Day: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays.
Tickets: Adult admission: $20 to $23; youth, $8; under age 5, free. Discounts for seniors and students.
More info: (626) 405-2100, huntington.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about the arts for Marquee.