With Flying Colors

Horace Pippin: From War to Peace

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 19, 2019–December 31, 2020
(The museum is temporarily closed. Works from the exhibition can be seen at philamuseum.org.)
The Getaway; painting by Horace Pippin
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Horace Pippin: The Getaway, 24 5/8 x 36 inches, 1939

On the last page of Horace Pippin, American Modern, Anne Monahan reproduces a witty and informative drawing titled How to Look at Modern Art in America. Created by Ad Reinhardt and published in PM Magazine in June 1946, it delineates the art scene of the day in the form of a big tree, with its soil, roots, main trunk, big boughs, branches, and, ultimately, individual leaves all labeled with names. The chief point of the drawing is the way the big bough on the right, loaded with names of representational artists, including Marsden Hartley, Ben Shahn, and Georgia O’Keeffe, is about to crash off the tree, while the other big bough, full of the names of abstract artists, including Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers, and Mark Rothko, is alive and well. (Reinhardt was an abstractionist.) Sitting here and there on the great tree are a handful of birds, each named for a presumably independent art world figure. Only one bird, in a drawing that contains some 150 names, is flying through the sky. This is Horace Pippin. He is heading toward the tree’s left, or living, side.

In many ways, Pippin, who died at age fifty-eight the month after the drawing was published, is in the same special and isolated position today. A self-taught artist who began painting when he was around forty, and whose generally small-size pictures include portraits, still lifes, and family scenes, he has long made viewers uncertain about the difference between being a self-taught, folk or naive, artist and a trained one. His rendering of facial expressions, human anatomy, or the interior space of a scene can be awkward, even crude. He is on wobbly ground with the relative proportions of a club chair and a vase of flowers, or with how to get a chair that was meant to face forward to do so. Yet he was a gifted formal artist with an enviable feeling for color. More than that, he had an avid interest in the way other painters worked and a need to make his own versions of the kinds of pictures he responded to.

In Horace Pippin, American Modern, Monahan takes up the very issue of how we are to think about the artist now, and fortuitously the Philadelphia Museum of Art has on long-term view a wonderful exhibition entitled “Horace Pippin: From War to Peace,” which brings together the museum’s small but choice collection of his work. How powerful Pippin can be is on full display in The Getaway (circa 1938–1939), though the artist’s assurance may be hidden at first by his inauspicious subject. We might not expect to be admiring the construction of a picture showing a fox with a bird in its mouth, running through the snow on…

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