Painting Light! Summer Selections of Modern and Contemporary Art

July 2, 2020
This painting is made up of horizontally placed stripes of paint that are brushed or sprayed on and allowed to drip. The grid is four columns across and about six rows down. Orange dominates the right half but the whole work is interspersed with dark red, black, tan, and green. The color blocks mostly follow the grid but often go beyond the gridlines or span two of the carefully applied rectangles varying in length and thicknesses.
2007.225 Joan Snyder, American, Summer Orange, 1970. Oil, acrylic, spray enamel, and pencil on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Michael Walls (GSD, Class of 1961–1963) in memory of his parents, John Alvin James Williamson Walls and Elva Mary Claire Ricciardi Walls, 2007.225. © Joan Snyder.

In the words of American artist Harry Sternberg, summer offers prime opportunities for “painting light.” In the selections below, curators and curatorial fellows from the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art explore art inspired by the season.

Engaging with sites from the Rocky Mountains to New York City, from the Belgian seaside to the Baltic Coast, these works imagine summer as a time of light, color, and the outdoors—a chance for both pleasure and reflection. 

Light and Heat

An American painter based in New York, Joan Snyder first became known for her “stroke paintings” in the 1970s. Summer Orange, seen above, combines different techniques of 20th-century abstract painting, from staining the canvas to applying pigment with spray cans. A penciled grid—the prototypical structure of modernist painting—organizes the patches of vibrant oranges, verdant greens, and warm golden hues that drip and extend beyond the regular lines. Vertical paint streaks, hardened in mid-drip, heighten the tension between order and disorder, evoking the work of Jackson Pollock. Even as their colors imply the brightness and heat of a summer day, Snyder’s paintings bear an intensity that has been described by critics as “drenched with personal pain, stammered with rage.” Like abstract expressionists, Snyder saw painting as an extension of personal experience; but she also saw it as bound up with feminist struggles for equality in political and cultural spheres. Painting allowed her to “speak visually,” as she phrased it, in a male-dominated world.

Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

The black and white photograph shows sparse car traffic on a small town street, with lots of empty parking spaces and a deserted sidewalk. In the foreground at right, a hand-painted sign on the sidewalk shows an ice cream cone topped with three generous scoops. The text above the ice cream cone reads “Triple Dip” and below it “5¢.”
P1970.3119 Ben Shahn, American, Untitled, August 1938. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn, P1970.3119.

So Much Ice Cream

American artist Ben Shahn spent the summer of 1938 making photographs in rural Ohio for the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency dedicated to aiding farmers during the Great Depression. Shahn was one of several well-known artists, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, hired by the FSA to document the often-precarious economic conditions of farmers and to promote the agency’s recovery programs.

In addition to capturing the start of the wheat harvest, Shahn took photographs of daily life in small Ohio towns. This photograph, made on the Main Street of Plain City, focuses on a hand-painted sign of a “triple dip,” or three-scoop ice cream cone. Initially trained as a commercial artist, Shahn was likely drawn to the animated lettering and gravity-defying height of the stacked scoops. Beyond its visual charms, the sign presents a refreshing image of plenty and pleasure in the midst of a period marked by deprivation and hardship.

Katherine Mintie, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

In the foreground of this drawing, a man and woman sit close together on two towels on a beach. In the background, small groups of people stand, sit, and lie on the sand. Four beach huts occupy the top right corner. An outline of an ocean liner trailing steam is visible on the horizon.
BR73.63 Jeanne Mammen, German, The Beach at Ostende, c. 1926. Watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper mounted to off-white card. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Ruppert, BR73.63. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Seaside Views

This 1920s beach scene by Jeanne Mammen, drawn in graphite with washes of an acidic yellow, is titled for a popular Belgian tourist destination. A muscular man sits with his back to the viewer and, notably, to his female companion as well. Slim and sporting a modern bobbed haircut, the woman kneels with eyes closed, her jaw set. The two seem as oblivious to each other as to the shoreline’s distant crowds.

During this period, Mammen was a successful graphic artist and illustrator in Berlin, best known for her images capturing city life. Her commercial work for satirical, art, and popular magazines often openly subverted traditional gender roles and depicted heterosexual relationships as marked by indifference. While these beachgoers hardly left behind the tense alienation typically ascribed to the metropolis, the woman might well still be enjoying the warmth of the sun, indicated by the lightest touch of that bright yellow on her face. Their minimal color scheme notwithstanding, Mammen’s watercolors of this period offer detailed observation of the full range of modern humanity, in all its complexity.

Lynette Roth, Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Head, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

This print lists in black a series of words separated by small design elements, incorporating the texture of the woodblock. The text reads: Driving Across the US/Corn Wheat Tornados/Rocky Mts Cowboys/Indians Deserts Palm/Orange Avacado/Trees Mexicans/Isomata and Palm/Springs Wrkshops/The Pacific Ocean/Hiking Bicycling/And Such/Fine/Painting Light!
Harry Sternberg, American, Driving Across the US/Corn Wheat Tornados/Rocky Mts Cowboys/Indians Deserts Palm/Orange Avacado/Trees Mexicans/Isomata and Palm/Springs Wrkshops/The Pacific Ocean/Hiking Bicycling/And Such/Fine/Painting Light!, 1991. Woodcut. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, M25834.35. © 1991 Harry Sternberg/Brighton Press.

The Open Road

In this print, the 35th in a series of 40 that make up the portfolio A Life in Woodcuts, artist and educator Harry Sternberg uses words to describe his move from New York City to Escondido, California, upon his retirement from the Art Students League in 1966. He highlights the drama of the Rocky Mountains and the excitement of encountering new people and landscapes. He alludes to new teaching opportunities at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA) and the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and he revels in the outdoor activities and fine painting light afforded by his new home. The vast middle of the country is reduced to three words, but those few syllables—corn, wheat, tornadoes—return me, as I am reading them, to childhood. They evoke for me the depths of a Midwestern summer, expansive fields of grain, tall cornstalks adorned with fat ears awaiting the plunge into boiling water and anointing of butter, and the strangely colored sky and heavy, still air that might signal the arrival of a tornado.

Sarah Kianovsky, Curator of the Collection, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

Five small sailboats are pulled up on a sand beach; four have vertically extended masts, three with open sails. Small figures are situated along the horizontal shoreline. The lower left corner includes three figures sitting or lying down next to draped fabric. In the upper right corner, long black lines and short strokes radiate from a circular representation of a sun.
BR51.266 Max Pechstein, German, Fishing Boats, 1919. Watercolor and black ink on cream wove paper, mounted to white card. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Anonymous gift, BR51.266. © Pechstein Hamburg/Tökendorf/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020.

Casting About

In the wake of World War I, German Expressionist Max Pechstein aligned himself with revolutionary and socialist causes. Based in Berlin, he experienced the violent suppression of striking workers firsthand and became painfully aware of artists’ inability to intervene in the deadly political clashes of this turbulent period. Discouraged, Pechstein retreated and sought solace in the small fishing village of Nidden (Nida), where, as he wrote to a friend, he could “get healed by nature.” Located along the thin sand-dune spit separating the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon, this picturesque spot in East Prussia (now Lithuania) attracted many painters and creative types seeking relief from modern urbanization. When Pechstein returned to Nidden for the first time since 1912, he was amazed to find it still untouched by the war. He later wrote in his memoirs, “I soaked up light and color in this nature unspoiled by humans,” and he created this ecstatic celebration of the seaside as a space of both work and leisure. Along with a vibratory sun radiating inky black lines, the drawing features soft lilac and ochre watercolors contrasted with angular graphic forms to communicate his enduring desire to unite human existence with nature’s rhythms.

Lauren Hanson, Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

A color photograph of a landscape with snowcapped mountains, coniferous forests, and a lake. In the foreground, a Native American woman in traditional dress kneels on the ground surrounded by various artificial and real animals, shrubs, and flowers.
2018.188.4 Wendy Red Star, Apsáalooke, Indian Summer, 2006. Archival pigment print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2018.188.4. © Wendy Red Star.

Mountain Air

The acclaimed Apsáalooke (Crow) photographer Wendy Red Star first gained widespread recognition for her 2014 series Four Seasons, which includes this photograph. Based in Portland, Oregon, Red Star works in various mediums—photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performancebut her motivation remains consistent throughout. She addresses the misrepresentation of Native Americans in popular culture and questions the erasure of their subjectivity. In Indian Summer, Red Star draws on the genre of self-portraiture while juxtaposing popular notions about Native people. Posing in what could be a diorama from a natural history museum, Red Star sits on Astroturf with cutouts of animals and other props. The ripples and camera glare visible in the paper background further allude to the fictionality of representations, stereotypes, and clichés that she enacts and exposes.

Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art


Entries compiled and edited by Lynette Roth, the Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Head, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Bridget Hinz, Curatorial Assistant for Special Exhibitions and Publications, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art. Images were selected as part of a collections-based project by Azana Best.