By BRUCE HELANDER, July 2023
The world is going virtual, and logically the artworld is now beginning its sophisticated virtual ascent as well. Each virtual iteration of the electronic realm is better, more compelling, more creative and exponentially more expansive in its art reach to an ever-increasing audience.
The profile and power of internet exhibitions are now dramatically and emphatically demonstrated in one of southern Florida’s leading fine arts establishments, Manolis Projects Gallery in Miami. Its virtual exhibition honoring America’s 247th Birthday, titled “247-HBA: Revolutionary Reflections,” presents commanding interpretations of the American flag by twenty-five artists; composed of three guest artist superstars—Hunt Slonem, Bernie Taupin and Morton Kaish—who join twenty-two Miami School Art Movement (MSAM) artists in this remarkable exhibition.
Donald Kuspit, perhaps America’s premier art historian, author and art critic said about this exhibition, “Magnificent works. Tour de force aesthetically, emotionally. Elated, joie de vivre, libidinous, life force. Relief from all the miserabilism (Breton's word) around in art and society. Congratulations on the achievement, on the attitude, Weltanschauung. Rare.”
The American flag is the most recognized and respected image in the United States and is the subject of “247-HBA: Revolutionary Reflections,” a remarkable virtual gallery exhibition. The visual centerpiece of the exhibition has a rich, dramatic and historic background ripe for an artist’s interpretation. Starting from scratch with swatches of colored cloth stitched together in 1776 by seamstress Betsy Ross, who is credited with refining the original symbolic design of stars and stripes. Perhaps the most remarkable illustrative evidence of this momentous occasion is the 1917 painting by prominent artist Percy Moran titled “The Birth of Old Glory,” now in the permanent collection of National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. In it, Betsy Ross is shown unveiling her hand-sewn flag to George Washington and his generals. The design originally consisted of thirteen white stars in a circle on a blue square background with thirteen red and white horizontal stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. More than just a symbol, the American flag embodies a promise—the capacity for liberty, equality and justice for all. Centuries later the stars now represent the fifty states of the Union. The colors of the flag are symbolic as well; red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white for purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.
Not surprisingly, a multitude of artists have found inspiration in the stars and stripes, integrating the red, white and blue colors into interpretive, narrative and abstract compositions that have been acclaimed throughout history. Perhaps one of the most familiar depictions is “Allies Day, May 1917” by Childe Hassam of a flag-draped street scene commemorating the day America entered World War I, which is on permanent display in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Another contender is Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 surreal masterwork “Our Banner in the Sky,” where blazing sunset colors represent the flag (from the collection of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco).
Contemporary artists have incorporated the flag image in hundreds of works, with “Flag” (1954) by Jasper Johns leading the pack, arguably his most famous piece. Other respected artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Hammons, Bernie Taupin, Faith Ringgold, William Copley and Nam June Park, among others, have utilized the flag’s philosophy and recognition to explore a menagerie of historic connections and composition.
This tradition continues in “247-HBA: Revolutionary Reflections (Happy Birthday America),” which also will be on display in a special presentation on ARTSY, launching nationally and globally on June 28, 2023. The exhibition consists of works of exuberant and communicative color by a diversified group of primarily South Florida abstract artists, assembled and curated by J. Steven Manolis, founder of the new Miami School Art Movement. The show also includes observations by the world-renowned art critic, author, and Fulbright Scholar Donald J. Kuspit, PhD.
Among the twenty-five artists and 48 works is a rousing piece by hotshot painter Hunt Slonem titled “Quantum Lepus Part 2--American Flag,” which portrays the artist’s iconic bunny imagery superimposed over a painted American flag. The painting is Slonem’s very first combination of his iconic bunnies with a flag design, and in this humorous arrangement of nine long-eared bunnies he “floats” the furry creatures over the flag, contributing to an unusual pairing of hip-hop culture.
Bernie Taupin, a British-born, California-based American citizen, has been motivated by the American flag for years. His first flag series debut was at Waterhouse & Dodd during Art Wynwood in 2016 that was very favorably reviewed in The Huffington Post. His fascination with the stark beauty of the stars and stripes complete with engaging titles can be traced to his legendary talents as lyricist for singer Elton John. Taupin also demonstrates a impressive rhythmic chemistry and instinctive aptitude that enables him to “build” his paintings and constructions, sometimes with words and recognizable shapes. Often, a flag painting is literally bound with twine that generates its own patterns and makes references to a variety of other artists, from Christo to Arman. Taupin’s Bohemian mother was a valuable inspiration to him when he was a young artist, as she exposed him to leading modernist painters. She encouraged him to always carry a sketchbook, which Taupin utilized on many visits to museums, where he also was influenced by seeing the works of J.M.W. Turner, Antoni Tàpies and Hans Hofmann.
Morton Kaish is a classic and inspiring artist whose paintings and prints can be found in major museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian and British Museum. Kaish has a remarkable skill to combine traditional and experimental painting techniques with contemporary insights. Critics from The New York Times, The New Yorker and TIME have all favorably commented on his unique paintings. The work on view in this exhibition titled “Flag 1” (print on archival paper) captures the vitality and placement of the American flag as central images in a magical landscape environment.
Jill Krutick applauds American greatness with her vibrant painting titled “Victory Day,” which dramatically welds together red, white and blue spinning circular forms, producing a kind of ambulatory vibration that seems to move gracefully in and out of the picture plane. Some explosive interlocking shapes seem to reflect a “rocket’s red glare—bombs bursting in air.” The artist, currently celebrating her fourth solo museum exhibition at the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, continues to investigate inventive applications of swirling forms that are like aerial views of open landscapes accented by waterways or views of other galaxies. In the delightful “Victory Day” lyrics connected to the dawn’s early light with a pinch of twilight’s last gleaming comes to mind.
Ursula Schwartz is a painter that has been influenced by classic abstract expressionists, particularly artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Grace Hartigan. Her bold works are bursting with color and creative energy and possess an unusual, dynamic freshness and vibrancy that dominate the work. Schwartz’s artistic passion continues to offer a mesmerizing experience, often drawing the observer’s eye deep into the canvas. Her work also alludes to her appreciation of artists such as Zao Wou-ki as well as distinguished artists originating from her native South Africa, including Marlene Dumas, an eminent international star.
J. Steven Manolis, a distinguished abstract expressionist artist and curator, has assembled six vertical flag shapes together as a “sextet,” where each panel suggests a narrative of an all-inclusive, off-kilter, unbalanced configuration that speak together as one integrated visual story. Portraying abstracted American flags is a natural extension for Manolis, who has painted hundreds of constructivist works that interlace vertical and horizontal stripes, stars and dashes of concentric circles that act as a balancing act to pull his compositions together. Manolis’ contribution to this show is reminiscent of broad stripes and bright stars (through a perilous night!) that has a sensational triumphant spirit. All six vertical shapes also hint at waving flags overhead as an imaginary marching band and color guard passes underneath, which Donald Kuspit described as: “Tour de force. Fugal variations on a theme. Chamber music of colors. Ingenious, brilliant.”
Camilla Webster contributes a well-worn and somewhat distressed interpretation of Old Glory that demonstrates a purposeful survival of determined color and inherent character. The pleasing, robust patina of uneven interlocking horizontal bars that evoke a painted stucco wall are handsome and confident. Oh, say can you see from the dawn’s early light that Webster is an intelligent painter and visual communicator that has a natural knack for creative metaphor and simple beauty. Her recent residency at Anderson Ranch gave her the opportunity to connect with the environment’s inherent strength by surrounding herself in a natural setting for the insight evident here.
Ron Burkhardt’s stunning canvas establishes seven vertical abstract geometric landscapes that cleverly spell out AMERICA in vivid block letters. In Burkhardt’s letterscapes a viewer is invited to interpret a highly abstracted geometric design from shapes that spell out a word. In his work “Stars and Stripes No. 3 (White Flag)” the first shape on the far-left side evolves as a kind of sunrise that suggests proof through the night that our flag was still there!
Annemarie Ryan’s impressive grand canvas titled “Stars and Stripes Forever (Swirl)” dramatically presents an orbiting composition of red and blue ribbons that are accented with spray-painted white stars, as the five-pointed shapes seem to spin proudly to form a cohesive design that is thematically distinctive. (Bright stars through a perilous night.) In this work the design sensibility of the late Florida artist James Rosenquist comes to mind, who interpreted billboard graphics into his work, particularly his romance with outer space imagery.
There are other artists represented in the exhibition that also are noteworthy but due to space requirements are not illustrated here.
The inspiration that our country’s flag brings is a continuous pleasure to artists and viewers and collectors. The timing of this meaningful show launched between Flag Day and the Fourth of July couldn’t be more appropriate. WM
Bruce Helander is an artist who writes on art and is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. His most recent book is “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.). He is a frequent contributor to numerous publications including The Huffington Post and Forbes.view all articles from this author