The Guitar Is Art Object And Object Of Art At The Frist
In our line of work, we see a lot of guitars, but speaking for myself, they never get boring. Each one has its own sound and story, no matter how humble. On one level, they’re tools of a trade, like a shovel or a saw, but ask most any musician about their tool, and you’d best be ready to listen for a while. It is America’s most accessible, versatile, portable instrument - the muse and machine behind most of our popular music and a host of social and political movements besides.
As an amplifier of human expression, it’s no surprise that this ubiquitous and populist instrument has made its way into other art forms. And that’s vividly on display at Storied Strings - The Guitar In American Art, an exhibit that’s heading into its final two weeks at the Frist Art Museum. It sounds like an idea that would be developed by curators from Music City, but it’s actually a visiting exhibit with its origins at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. That said, it has been tweaked and supplemented for its run in Nashville, says Mark Scala, chief curator for the Frist.
“We didn't want it to just be about guitars themselves, but about the meaning behind guitars, the symbolism of guitars, the stories of the evolution of guitars, but also how people craft images of guitar players and what information is contained in those images,” Scala told me as we headed in for a tour. “So there's a really broad sweep to the exhibition itself. It tries to tell as much of the story of the guitar in American history as possible.”
That means we encounter works from as early as 1771 and as recent as last year, in a wide range of mediums. The works are set in galleries organized around themes, including domestic life in early America, the centrality of blues and folk music, protest songs, cowboys, commerce, and ‘Personification,’ which depicts the varied ways the human body can interact with the sensual shapes of guitars. Taking it all in, I’m reminded of the gulf between those of us who handle or contemplate guitars every day and the much larger population that sees and hears guitars only in the service of a finished record or performance. Such a context-rich exhibit lends the instrument a dignity and resonance that’s cherished by the indoctrinated but possibly more foreign to those who don’t play or spend time around the music-making process. I’d expect visitors who aren’t guitar heads will come away knowing a lot more about what this iconic instrument means to us musically obsessed people.
Pre 20th century America took music in the home pretty seriously, so guitars and their stringed cousins were part of daily and domestic life in many parlors and sitting rooms. That’s the spirit of a portrait of the Edward Lloyd Family of Maryland in a 1771 painting by Charles Willson Peale, with Mrs. Lloyd holding a cittern, a stringed instrument somewhere between an early guitar and a mandolin. It’s here as a prop, but there’s reason to believe that as a cultivated person of her time, she played. I’m even more convinced by the beautiful solo portrait of an unidentified woman by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp from 1908. The subject’s hand positions are accurate and her tranquil gaze is fixed on her fretting hand. Sitting in soft light, she has that aura of purpose I could associate with any of our roots music troubadours of today. I believe she’s working on a song.
A more social scene comes from 1866 in “The Musicale, Barber Shop, Trenton Falls, New York” by Thomas Hicks. He’s chosen as his subject an inter-racial group with a black fiddler making music with a white cellist and guitar player. Another African American stands with the group appearing to wear a rubboard, suggesting this band could get groovy, but it seems that this is a more serene number, as a group of men (inside) and women (outside the door) listen, along with a perky dog. The guitar player here is actually making eyes through an open window with a young woman, as if the trope of the guitar as a lover magnet has long been with us.
As with guitar music itself, things get more scintillating and future-facing in the 20th century, and one of the show-stopper works for me is “Blues With Guitar And Bass” by Charles Henry Alston, which was painted around 1948. The painter was close with the top echelons of the New York jazz community, and this oil on canvas work depicts three nightclub musicians snuggled close together in concert, almost crowding the frame. The guitarist is lost in the sound, his eyes closed. The singer, in white with a red rose on her shoulder, brings contrast and energy to the image. The color palette is lush but understated. I wanted to take that one home.
Complementing and contrasting with that work is “Fiddler’s Contest 1935” by Howard Cook, a lithograph in black, white and gray. A fiddler, flanked by two guitar players, is playing and perhaps singing to no discernable audience. Their faces look worn from outdoor work. The shading, as if done in charcoal, helps the instruments and the musicians pop off the paper. This documentary drawing of traditional musicians encountered in Brookwood, AL illustrates the blurry lines between amateurs and professionals in the folk realm.
I see similar elements in “Jessie With Guitar,” painted in 1957 by Thomas Hart Benton (pictured above). Jessie is the artist’s daughter on or around her 18th birthday, and those who know Benton’s masterful “Sources of Country Music” that’s hung in the Country Music Hall of Fame for decades will see striking parallels in the jewel-tone colors and the idea of hand-made music set in a lush landscape. Unlike the musician in DeCamp’s female portrait, Jessie Benton looks off as if to the horizon with a serene confidence. Her hair seems to move in a breeze. It’s a loving portrait that can startle from a distance, with a gorgeously rendered acoustic guitar at the dead center of the work.
Another signature work from Storied Strings is “Three Folk Musicians” by the renowned multi-media artist Romare Bearden. I’ve loved his impressionistic collages of jazz musicians since I learned about him as a teenager. But I’ve never seen this one, a trio of apparently African American songsters in the work clothes of the Depression era, two with guitars and one with a banjo. Bearden’s technique of clipping and arranging found images into slightly surreal scenes creates an illusion of music, “a sense of dynamism and a sense of improvisation” as Scala put it. “It's a really remarkable exercise in rhythmic construction…one of the stars of the show.”
Arranged among the paintings, photographs and prints on the walls is a somewhat parallel story of the guitars themselves. The objects of desire start early on with a case containing three early guitars from the C.F. Martin Guitar Co., including one from 1842, just three years after the company was set up in Nazareth, PA, where it still makes best-in-class guitars today. The art and craft of decorative inlay is magical and playful on a Stella “Gambler Deluxe” from 1930 with its pearl neck and playing cards motif. An archtop jazz guitar from 1932 by John D’Angelico (the second instrument ever made by this legendary luthier apparently) is a lust-making dream of sleek 20th century design. And a wall of rare Gibson guitars, one of the last beats of the show near the exit, salutes the legacy of that great American maker, now headquartered here in Nashville.
The final gallery has the high falutin’ title Aestheticizing The Motif. But fear not, it has even more guitars, including a kind of benediction presentation I found clever and important featuring Kaki King. The 43-year-old Georgia-born artist is a fingerstyle virtuoso who’s been coming up with new ways to present and play guitar over a twenty year career. We see video from her acclaimed multimedia show The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, which uses high tech projectors to animate the body of the guitar and her backdrop with imagery while she plays. It’s progressive and exciting, an especially vivid reminder that even after more than 150 years of music-making on the six-string wood box, much more is possible on this apparently infinite instrument.
Storied Strings runs through Aug. 13. It is complemented by Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today, an exhibit in the Frist’s hallway featuring samplings of work by some of Nashville’s most important and respected music photographers.