Jewish World Review May 22, 2002 / 11 Sivan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Pictures at an exhibition | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. You don't need words for the traveling exhibition of Americana from the Smithsonian that's just opened here at the Arkansas Arts Center.

The first rule at any art exhibit is not to read the commentary. Since you're going to read the little plaques beside each work anyway, the second rule is to look at the picture first.

I'm transfixed by the first painting on display. I would be. It's an almost folk depiction of a baseball game under the lights in Smalltown, America.

Upper New York state? Early spring? Semi-pro? It's a perfect world: Sparse crowd, bleachers, radio booth, the flag, and the football goal posts along the sidelines, almost hidden in wait for the next season.

"Nobody's eating," a woman by my side says. Why, yes, she's right. Nobody in the stands has as much as a hot dog, a cold drink, an after-dinner snack. Women notice things like that; they're the practical ones. It must be a secondary sexual characteristic. Or a result of feeding a family for years.

Who did the painting? "Morris Kanto, 1896-1974, born in Russia." Of course it would be by an immigrant. It's so American.

The scene is so empty and full at the same time, like the fields you know lie behind the baseball field. The dark rolling fields of the republic. Empty and full as promise.

Then it's on to socially progressive art -- well, posters. It doesn't seem to matter what country: Socialist Realism is Socialist Realism is Socialist Realism. There's no nostalgia here, only propaganda.

I make the mistake of reading some of the prolefeed next to the more socially conscious paintings. It all sounds as if it were written by a WPA-certified writer for the NRA who, after the war, became corporate VP for PR. In one painting, the human figures fold into a giant papermaking machine, like International Paper's just down the road at Pine Bluff. It's the American version of deus ex machina. And its spirit, or spiritlessness, is still around: "The world wide web has changed everything!" And if not, the next big idea will.

There's a Raphael Soyer here, too. Every exhibit needs one to stay human. There's an Andrew Wyeth, stark and mournful and worth seeing. A disappointing Rockwell Kent, who doesn't age well. And a field of wheat that's a beautiful little combination of the classical, realistic and art deco by, of all people, Thomas Hart Benton, the people's painter. It would make a great postage stamp or frieze around a public building. You resist the temptation to bend down and pick up a few tassels off the floor.

An eerie picture called "The Waiting Room" shows people in little stalls waiting around for their Godot. It has the feel of a bus terminal, or a draft induction center. I can't leave. Each stall is numbered. I think I'm in #120.

What matters in these encounters with a painting isn't what it says to you, not entirely, but what you bring to it. Maybe you just have to catch it at the right time in your life. If you don't, it's like reading Shakespeare when you're too young, or Scott Fitzgerald after you're too old.

The masterwork in this exhibit is Edward Hopper's "People in the Sun." How does he do it? He opens a closet in a motel room and there's the ocean. Here his mannequin people sit out on the deck basking, all fully clothed. It is surreal yet real, sunny and dark, empty and full. Like the American dream.

It's as if Hopper's people were enjoying not a sunbath but the idea of one. It is the idea of America, of the new world, that so attracts and assures. Like the possibility of getting in your car -- right now -- and heading straight out I-40 for Albuquerque. You won't do it, but knowing you can makes all the difference. We are still a westering people. Maybe that's what America is, the knowledge of possibility.

Before leaving the museum I pay my usual nod of homage to my favorite in the permanent exhibition, the Bonnard. The artist's wife is still entering the same room, permanently. Like a promise. Gouache and pencil on paper. Simple as a dream, which is never simple.

Then I walk out into a perfect spring evening, A full moon is framed by ethereal clouds. He is an artist, too -- in the Japanese style this evening.

That night I have a nightmare about being lost. I am unable to get back to the Chicago Daily News, where I used to work, in time to read a page proof for tomorrow's paper, though I can plainly see the building from here, sleek and blank and as mysteriously inviting as the American future. I understand they're going to tear it down.

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