American Art from the Thyssen Collection by Paloma Alarcó and Alba Campo Rosillo

Review by David Starkey

Before visiting Madrid this past February, I must admit that I had no idea that the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum even existed. But exist it does, and the exhibition I was fortunate enough to see, “American Art from the Thyssen Collection,” offers a bracing and complex vision of its subject, from before the Revolution through the twentieth century. The show’s catalogue, by Paloma Alarcó and Alba Campo Rosillo, with texts by Clara Marcellán and Marta Ruiz del Árbol, is informative, if at times a little overly so, but its real focus, of course, is generally small, but clear and well-printed color reproductions of the works in the exhibition.

The catalog, like the show itself, divides the works into four categories—“Nature,” “Culture Crossings,” “Urban Space” and “Material Cultures”—with works in each group appearing in chronological order. Making connections between images is one of the pleasures of museum-going and catalogue browsing, and we receive a good deal of help in that regard from the curators. It is certainly legitimate for Campo Rosillo to note, in an essay entitled “Interactions: Community, Conflict, Allegiance,” that comparing William Merritt Chase’s 1887 picture of an American girl wearing a kimono to James Goodwyn Clonney’s racially charged 1847 painting Fishing Party on Long Island Sound off New Rochelle suggests “Other subjects and cultures were equally superficially rendered.” However, as I wandered through the exhibition, I was often struck as much by commonalities of structure and color—the greens and yellows and pinks of John Martin’s 1917 Abstraction and Tom Wesselman’s 1970 Nude No. 1, for instance—as by the painters’ social commentary, even though in this show social commentary is clearly the point.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to reach many of the conclusions that that curators are nudging you towards. There’s the mistreatment of the poor in John Singer Sargent’s 1882 Venetian Onion Seller, the evils of Manifest Destiny in Frederic Remington’s 1904 Apache Fire Signal, the vapidity of modern consumerism in Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 Woman in Bath, the mechanistic interchangeability of modern life in Richard Estes’ 1967 Telephone Booths, and the complexity of racial representation in Romare Bearden’s 1969 Sunday After Sermon. Even if, as in the case of Singer Sargent and Remington, the artist’s original intentional might have been less clear-cut, the overall sweep and arrangement of the exhibition moves viewers towards predestined interpretations.

There is a deep irony, of course, that the left-leaning commentary in American Art from the Thyssen Collection would not exist without the philanthropy of capitalist billionaire Hans Henrik Ágost Gábor, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon et Impérfalva, who is thanked profusely in the catalogue. And the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is hardly alone in foregrounding this conundrum. Think of the Prada Foundation in Venice and Milan, the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Getty and the Broad in Los Angeles, and Crystal Bridges in unlikely yet perfectly apt Bentonville, Arkansas. There’s a lovely irony that a place like Crystal Bridges, which exists solely due to the incredible wealth generated by Walmart, is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.”

Although the catalogue tells us that Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza spent much of his time running his businesses, and collecting art, while living in New York, Madrid feels much more removed from or the hot springs of Yellowstone Lake or the marshes of Rhode Island—two painterly subjects in the show—than Arkansas does from the Dirty South. Perhaps that’s why the exhibition, helmed by Spanish curators, feels so stimulating. In any event, those of us who like to look at world-class paintings will continue to rely on the generosity of the very rich to get our fix. (“American Art from the Thyssen Collection” is on display in Madrid through October 16, 2022.)