Collecting and Exhibiting American Art at Tate
The essays in this section explore the significance of three survey exhibitions of American art held at Tate during the post-war years in relation to Tate’s engagement with American art more broadly during the directorships of John Rothenstein and Norman Reid. They examine Tate’s institutional attitudes towards American art, revealing the opportunities and challenges it faced in building a world-class collection of art from the United States, and the transatlantic relations that had an impact on post-war British art and society.
American Art under John Rothenstein, 1938–64
As Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein showed a commitment to transatlantic relations and a distinctly national view of American art that shaped the museum’s early acquisitions of works by American artists. Using archival sources, this essay gives an account of Rothenstein’s collecting strategy and international networks, contextualises the varied selection of American works acquired during his directorship, and reveals the lasting impact of these acquisitions on Tate’s collection far beyond Rothenstein’s tenure.
American Art under Norman Reid, 1964–79
Norman Reid’s directorship of the Tate Gallery was marked by several high-profile and sometimes controversial acquisitions and exhibitions of American art. This essay draws upon archival sources to provide detailed accounts of these important episodes in Tate’s history – from the purchase of Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! in 1966 to the so-called ‘Bricks scandal’ surrounding Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII ten years later – and considers Reid’s role in balancing the ambitions of his curators, the expectations of trustees and the demands of visitors.
American Painting , 1946
Presented at the Tate Gallery in 1946, American Painting: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day was the first international touring exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It positioned American painting as a form of mutual cultural recovery for the two nations, while also subtly promoting the United States’ growing cultural authority in relation to war-shattered Britain.
Modern Art in the United States , 1956
The 1956 exhibition Modern Art in the United States introduced visitors to the Tate Gallery to a wide range of modern American paintings, sculptures and prints. But it is chiefly remembered for its presentation of works by abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, largely because of the controversy these works generated in the British press.
The New American Painting , 1959
Keen to present the latest American painting to British audiences, the Tate Gallery secured a place for itself in the international tour of an impressive grouping of works drawn from the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and some private owners. The New American Painting as Shown in Eight European Countries, 1958–1959 proved an important bridge between American and European cultures, though several British commentators found abstract expressionist art difficult to interpret, let alone accept.
A Failed Charm Offensive: Tate and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Keen to expand Tate’s holdings of modern international art, the Director Norman Reid tried hard to persuade the American collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim to donate her impressive collection of European and American modern art to the gallery in the early and mid-1960s. Drawing on information gleaned from the gallery’s records and from press cuttings, this essay examines the reasons why the gallery’s charm offensive was ultimately unsuccessful.
E.J. Power: A Pioneering Collector of American Art
E.J. (or Ted) Power was the first, and for a period, the only substantial collector of contemporary art in Britain. As the critic John Russell wrote in Private View (1965), there were plenty of people in London who had the money to buy important works of art in the 1950s and 1960s but only Power had the requisite judgement and wilfulness to build a world-class collection. Power bought major examples of British and European art but, as this abridged 1996 essay shows, it was his in-depth engagement with leading young and mid-generation American artists that allowed him to create a collection that was unique in Britain. A generous patron, he loaned his collection to various British venues to encourage greater awareness of contemporary art and in 1968 became a Trustee of the Tate Gallery.
‘Realism Reconsidered’: Ben Shahn in London, 1956
On the occasion of his inclusion in an exhibition of American art at the Tate Gallery in London in 1956, the artist Ben Shahn gave a lecture called ‘Realism Reconsidered’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. In it he reviewed how modern art was talked about, focusing particularly on the different ways in which realism was understood. Exploring Shahn’s left-wing political beliefs and the institutional support he received in this period from American official bodies, this essay assesses what this moment reveals about the often overlooked politics of pluralism in Anglo-American cultural exchanges during the mid-1950s.
An ‘Outcast’ Abroad: Ad Reinhardt in London, 1964
When Ad Reinhardt’s first solo exhibition in the UK opened in 1964, the artist chose to present himself as an outcast in relation to the New York School. This essay examines the role this self-marginalisation played in refiguring the identity and character of abstract American art within a British context.