Contributed by Emma Flaherty / George Washington, George Inness, Georgia O’Keeffe—oh my! A diversity of subjects and artists hang in close juxtaposition inside the special exhibition galleries at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT, this summer. Bright colors—royal purple, Princetonian orange, and an inviting teal—convey the excitement that the curators intend these object-partnerships to provoke. Object Lessons in American Art: Selections from the Princeton University Art Museum, on view through September 10, features four centuries of artworks, merging a broad range of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper with utilitarian objects, such as baskets and pottery.
The exhibit encourages conversations about American history, culture, and society, displaying works from Princeton’s collection that feature Euro-American, Native American, and African American artists and subjects. Throughout its 21 sections, the show illuminates the different cultural, ethnic, and temporal circumstances of artistic creation in a landscape that has come to be known as “American.” These sections shed light on social groups that have been suppressed in the “canon” of American art, by juxtaposing perspectives on concepts such as gender, race, ecology, and social class.
One of the sections highlighting the concept of gender is “Woman’s World,” which features two 20th century paintings, one by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and the other by Grace Hartigan (1922-2008). United through their resistance to being called “women artists,” this section features works of theirs that dismantle both the personal and artistic generalizations and assumptions about their lives. O’Keeffe’s 1941 From a New Jersey Weekend II presents the viewer with a piece that diverges from O’Keeffe’s widely popularized floral compositions. Instead, two stark headstones preface a wire fence and a tree beyond. Because of O’Keeffe often being an often nude subject for her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864-1946) photographs, that one-sided, male gaze became a way viewers interpreted O’Keeffe’s own art. From a New Jersey Weekend II dismantles those assumptions. Its other-worldly coloring, with light pink headstones, serves both as an homage to O’Keeffe’s much beloved pink sandstone cliffs of New Mexico, and to her imaginative world view. This cemetery is also the product of one of her trips to the New Jersey farm of her friends—a much-needed break from the bustle of New York City, and likewise the prying eye of the art world. This painting invokes both the ecological and psychological connection that natural settings provided for O’Keeffe’s inspiration.
Grace Hartigan’s Wilma (1965) is an example of Abstract Expressionism, which was a male-dominated genre that included such artists as Jackson Pollock. Hartigan created this work after a period in which she exhibited under the name “George Hartigan.” While this decision could be seen as appealing to the male-dominated industry of the art world, erasing Hartigan’s identity as a woman, she considered it an element of empowerment, like female creators before her, such as George Eliot. Wilma’s abstracted woman, rendered in vibrant yellows and maroons, demonstrates Hartigan’s stylization of the female body. At the same time, the composition alludes to Hartigan’s feelings of fragmentation and disassociation, as Hartigan was constantly towing the line between concepts of masculinity and femininity. Before her painting career began in earnest, Hartigan married at seventeen and became pregnant. During WWII, she worked as a mechanical draftsperson at an airplane factory. Her move to Baltimore five years before the creation of Wilma marked not only the start of her teaching career, but also a period of a novel creative energy, one that was removed from the “public eye”. Despite the unique careers of the two artists in “Woman’s World,” their two paintings share the commonality of being created during periods when the artists were out of the spotlight, painting from their authentic conscience.
The section “Collections Redress” features works by Titus Kaphar (born 1976) and Mario Moore (born 1987). The “lesson” addresses practices of museum collecting and artistic production from the past, while looking towards a more inclusive future. In To Be Sold (2018), Titus Kaphar uses oil on canvas and rusted nails to merge two artistic traditions: traditional Euro-American portraiture with the African spiritual tradition of nkisi nkondi figures. The overt subject is Samuel Finley (1715-1766), who was president of Princeton University from 1761 to 1766. The faint cross to the left of his head adds a false sense of piety and honor, seemingly separating him from the ominous, maroon background. However, Kaphar’s use of torn strips of paper that cascade out of the president’s body reveals his sinister inner workings. The strips reproduce the document that mentions the six enslaved people who were part of the sale of the president’s “property” upon his death. The nails allude to the nkisi nkondi tradition, where priests in African communities would drive nails into sculptural figures upon the accusation of a certain person of a wrongdoing or crime.
Beside Kaphar’s work is Mario Moore’s Center of Creation (Michael) (2019). It is a portrait of a Princeton University Art Museum security guard named Michael Moore (no relation). Moore the artist was a 2018-2019 Mary Mackall Gwinn Hodder Fellow in Visual Arts at Princeton. During his fellowship he painted portraits of Princeton’s staff, who are primarily African American men. The painting transports viewers to the Kienbusch Galleries of Princeton, where Michael welcomes them into galleries solely featuring works by African and African American artists—the “Center of Creation.” They include a bronze Ife head, Charles White’s engraving of Fredrick Douglass, and a work by Barkley Hendricks, alluding to the continuum of African and African American portraiture in which Mario and his subject Michael participate.
Other artworks in the show by such artists as Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Robert S. Duncanson, John Singer Sargent, and the Guerrilla Girls appear in groupings that tackle topics like patriotism, childhood, the racialized landscape, the surrealist body, and more.
“Object Lessons in American Art: Selections from the Princeton University Art Museum,” Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT. Through September 10, 2023.
About the author: Emma Flaherty (she/her) is a senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, majoring in Art History. She is a Curatorial Intern at the Florence Griswold Museum, working with Associate Curator Jennifer Stettler Parsons during the summers of 2022 and 2023.
 Some language in this essay has been adapted from the exhibition texts on view at the Florence Griswold Museum.
 Princeton University Art Museum website, https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/33952. Accessed July 2023.
 “10 Things to Know About Grace Hartigan,” https://www.christies.com/features/10-things-to-know-about-Grace-Hartigan-11775-1.aspx. Accessed July 2023.
 Princeton University Art Museum website, https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/134443.
 Princeton University Art Museum website, https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/136900.