Robert Pincus Picks


Listen in: Robert Pincus reflects on his favorite corner of Behold, America!

Familiarity produces pleasure. If you spend a lot of time in museums looking at their collections as I have—or even a bit less than me—you have probably come to enjoy the repeat experience of seeing a favorite work in the place it calls home. It’s not just the painting that brings delight, but its place among other pictures.

But fresh sights are just as pleasurable as familiar ones. Take the picture you’ve always seen and encounter it in another museum, among a new arrangement of works, and it seems inevitable that the painting you know takes on an overlay of new life. This isn’t the driving reason for assembling Behold, America! Art of the United States from Three San Diego Museums, but it is one of the subtle virtues of assembling representative American works from The San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and displaying works from all three collections at each venue.

It’s one thing to see Eastman Johnson’s The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket (1880) in a retrospective for the major 19th century painter; this was the case in 2000 at The San Diego Museum of Art. It’s another to encounter the complex and picturesque landscape in La Jolla, in the same gallery as Mark Dion’s life-size diorama, Landfill (1999–2000). The two works, seen together, offer a favorite spot of mine in the MCASD portion of Behold, America!

The space within The Cranberry Harvest is expansive; in Landfill, it’s claustrophobic. The scene in Johnson’s picture is seductive; in Dion’s, it’s disturbing, since it is an enclosed universe stuffed with all the things we toss away, populated by taxidermied seagulls, rats, and a dog. His diorama struck me as a significant work when I interviewed the artist during the making of it in 2000—and still does. The 120 years that separates these “scenes” is a major sweep of American history. In that span of time, as we know, more and more open space has been filled by suburban and industrial tracts, which in turn has produced landfills everywhere sprawl exists.

This exhibition embodies a rich, detailed panorama of American art. How could it not, with the sweep of work encompassing the colonial era to contemporary times? But it’s also intriguing to think about how the show references the history of MCASD itself, when the La Jolla Art Center exhibited classic Americans like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer in the 1950s. The devotion to contemporary increased dramatically in the mid-’60s and crystallized by the time the venue became the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1971. Generally speaking, museums devoted to current art favor a transnational perspective. But a show like this reminds us that a lot of what we call contemporary art is also American art. And it reveals a great deal about the history of the United States along the way.

--Robert  L. Pincus

Robert L. Pincus was the art critic of The San Diego Union and The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, prior to which he served as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. An accomplished author, educator, and lecturer, Pincus is now the senior grants and arts writer at MCASD and contributed an essay to the new Behold, America! catalogue.