Past Exhibitions

Villa America: American Moderns

Exhibition Through October 2, 2005

Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950 presents major paintings by key American modernists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley, who reshaped our view of American art at the beginning of the twentieth century. The exhibition continues with artists such as Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, Philip Guston, and Romare Bearden, who celebrated an “American Scene” and created powerful images of everyday American life. Villa Americaalso includes works by American Regionalists Grant Wood and John Curry, as well as Charles Sheeler and Niles Spencer who returned to a form of classical realism to celebrate the American landscape in their paintings of the period. A diverse selection of major figurative works and artist portraits and self-portraits is also featured in this outstanding exhibition. 

Villa America presents for the first time one of the most celebrated private collections of American art from the first half of the twentieth century,” says director, Dennis Szakacs. “Over the last 30 years, Myron Kunin has assembled over 400 works, including many of the finest paintings by virtually every significant artist of the era. Yet some of the most exciting revelations here are Kunin's interest in less recognized but highly illuminating works by well known figures, such as wonderful early landscapes and portraits by Stuart Davis, as well as his attraction to complex artist self-portraits, and an affinity for intimate, often unnerving nudes. Kunin's maverick sensibility melds with a devotion to great painting and offers a highly personal entry into the American century.”

Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950 is organized by Elizabeth Armstrong, deputy director for programs and chief curator. The exhibition is accompanied by a 150-page catalogue with contributions by William Agee, Elizabeth Armstrong, Patricia Sue Canterbury, Wanda Corn, Bram Dijkstra, and Karal Ann Marling. For the first time, the museum will introduce an iPod audio tour of the exhibition. 

Armstrong states, “I first got to know this collection in the early 1980s, during my graduate school days at the University of California, Berkeley, and I watched it flourish during the years that I spent in Minneapolis in the 1980s and 1990s. From the beginning, Myron Kunin developed a collection that broke away from the traditional view of American modernism. Interested in both abstraction and figuration, and open to works by both well-known and unknown artists, he has consistently sought out artworks with an expressionist edge. Unconcerned with whether an artwork falls within the mainstream of accepted currents in art history, Kunin has always been attracted to the painting that, in his words, ‘reaches in, grabs your heart, and then stomps on it.’ The resulting collection is complex, diverse, and undeniably rich, providing a startlingly fresh perspective on American art between 1900 and 1950.”

Myron Kunin, describing his interest in working with the Orange County Museum of Art, stated, "The museum has taken a real interest in the collection and this special place is perfect to showcase it for the first time. The energy and direction of the museum are impressive, as are its growth and development in recent years. I've also known their chief curator for a long time, and have enjoyed talking with her about art and artists that interest us over the years. Sharing the best works from the collection, which have meant so much to me personally, with viewers from a region where I've lived part-time for over twenty years, is a great delight. Orange County is my second home after Minneapolis, where the show will travel next."

About the Exhibition

Villa America: American Moderns, 1900-1950 explores the evolution of American art through masterpieces by America’s foremost artists of the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition begins with a look at key American modernists working in Europe and New York during the first quarter of the century. In these early years, artists such as Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Gerald Murphy, and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name just a few, were reshaping American art. In the early 1900s many of these artists traveled abroad, where they embraced experimentation to transform traditional subject matter into avant-garde statements of personal expression. The exhibition’s title is taken from the name of Murphy’s home in southern France, which served as a gathering place for American and European modernists alike. Symbolizing the creative cross-germination spawned by artists, writers, and other cultural movers and shakers during these critical years, Villa Americais also the title of a Murphy painting in the exhibition. After World War I, as New York began to eclipse Europe as the destination for creative people, American artists returned, and many artists from abroad moved to the United States. 

This extended period of artistic innovation largely came to an end in the 1930s, following the stock market crash, which ushered in a more sober, realistic mode with themes drawn from regional values and a new sense of social responsibility. Artists such as Romare Bearden, Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood, Philip Guston, Reginald Marsh, and Ben Shahn celebrated and critiqued the “American Scene,” creating powerful images of everyday American life. In the 1930s and 1940s American Regionalists John Curry and Grant Wood championed a nationalistic art that emphasized agrarian values and the search for American roots. Artists Ralston Crawford, Charles Sheeler, and Niles Spencer, among others, embraced a form of classical realism to celebrate the American landscape in their paintings of the period.

The first section of the exhibition includes more than 20 paintings from the early “Villa America” years—from the first wave of American modernists who traversed the Atlantic and explored new avenues of expression opened up by their European counterparts, to a second and larger wave of progressive artists who emerged following the Armory Show, many of whom exhibited with Alfred Stieglitz at his famous 291 Gallery. In addition to paintings by Davis, Demuth, Dove, Hartley, O’Keeffe, and Murphy, this gallery also includes works by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Morgan Russell, Morton Schamberg, and Max Weber.

As the late 1920s and the 1930s witnessed a change of mood in this country, a significant number of artists felt the need to return to an older “American Scene” tradition of realism and social commentary. In New York, painters such as Walt Kuhn and Reginald Marsh chronicled the intense vitality of the city, depicting the fantastic range of activities and types of its diverse residents. Others—such as Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, and Philip Evergood—combined social criticism with caricature in paintings that radiated the sexual and psychological energy that helped carry many Americans through these difficult years. Throughout the country, artists became interpreters of America; the “American Scene” section of the exhibition also features stellar works by two of California’s most expressive mid century painters, Elmer Bischoff and David Park.

A strong “regionalist” movement in painting was also one of the results of the Depression, and it can be seen as a grassroots reaction to the cosmopolitanism of the preceding two decades. Grant Wood’s painting Return from Bohemia (1935), which gives its name to this section of the exhibition, perfectly captures the endorsement of rural life and local customs. At the same time, an artist such as Charles Sheeler, who had experimented with Cubism earlier in the century, brought a photographic clarity and realism to his work of the 1930s and 1940s. Other artists working in a realistic mode—such as Ben Shahn, Bernard Perlin, and Andrew Wyeth—are also well represented in this compelling section of the exhibition. 

In addition to offering a chronological overview of American art of the first half of the 20th century, Villa Americahighlights a selection of major figurative works that span the entire period, from early American masterpieces by Robert Henri and George Luks to mid century nudes by Milton Avery and Andrew Wyeth. Henri’s Edna Smith (Sunday Shawl) (1915), a portrait of a striking redhead, captures his sitter’s sensuality with directness and painterly spontaneity. The curious monumentality of Avery’s Seated Nude (1940), in contrast, heralds the radical streamlining of form that preceded the emergence of Abstract Expressionist painting at mid century.

Finally, the exhibition includes a gallery devoted to striking self-portraits by Paul Cadmus, Arthur Carles, Joseph Stella, and George Tooker, together with powerful portraits by Stuart Davis, Alice Neel, Morgan Russell, David Smith, and Pavel Tschelitchew of friends, acquaintances, and other notable sitters.

Image Credits:

All works from the collection of Curtis Galleries, Inc., founder Myron Kunin

Stuart Davis, Portrait of a Man, 1914; oil on canvas; Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Robert Henri, Edna Smith, 1915; oil on canvas.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Shelton Hotel, N.Y. No. 1, 1926; oil on canvas, © 2005 Estate of Georgia O’Keeffe/ARS.

Grant Wood, Return from Bohemia, 1935; crayon, gouache, pencil on paper, © 2005 Estate of Grant Wood; licensed by VAGA.

Philip Evergood, Madonna of the Mines, 1932; oil on canvas.

Walt Kuhn, Roberto, 1946; oil on canvas.

Arthur Dove, Moon and Sea II, 1923; oil on canvas.



Villa America is made possible by Victoria and Gilbert E. LeVasseur, Jr., Twyla R. and Charles D. Martin, and Jean and Tim Weiss.

Major support provided by Ross and Phyllis Escalette, The Escalette Family Fund, Barbara and Victor Klein, Jim and Pam Muzzy, and Christie’s.

Additional contributions provided by Bank of America, Gail and Roger Kirwan, Valaree Wahler and Nancy and Donald Wynne.

The Villa America exhibition catalogue is underwritten by Curtis Galleries, Inc., President Myron Kunin.