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Philadelphia in Venice

Once again, the city hopes to make a splash at the international Biennale - something area artists and museums have been doing for more than a century.

Thomas Eakins' "William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River" (1876-77, oil on canvas), was shown at the 1920 Venice Biennale.
Thomas Eakins' "William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River" (1876-77, oil on canvas), was shown at the 1920 Venice Biennale.Read morePhiladelphia Museum of Art

If Philadelphia has lifted its famously charming veil of parochialism in any sustained way, it has been through two cultural exports: international touring by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and, for more than a century, stepping onto the art world's big stage at the Venice Biennale.

No Philadelphians were represented at the first Biennale in 1895, but by the second international exposition in 1897, Philadelphia-born painter Julius L. Stewart started a long tradition of area artists and museums staking a claim for the city as a source of art ideas.

Often, Philadelphians have supplied precisely the archconservative contributions Venice curators were seeking. Bruce Nauman, whose work the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting at the 2009 Biennale, which opens next Sunday, is a bold counterargument to that role - though certainly not the first.

When the Art Museum brought Jasper Johns to the 1988 Biennale - the only other time it has taken charge of the U.S. Pavilion in Venice - the show was seen as a great success, a thoughtful reinterpretation of the American master who paved the way for pop and minimalist art.

Time magazine's Robert Hughes raved: "One leaves it convinced he is the deepest of living American artists, a painter whose subtlety and richness of imagination stand beyond doubt even when, as sometimes happens, one cannot find a direct way among the hints, inversions, repetitions and false scents in which his art abounds."

"His presence," the New York Times reported, "seemed to inspire half the New York art world to make a pilgrimage to Venice to honor him."

The exhibition took top honors - the Grand Prix, the Leone d'Oro.

More recently, in 2007, University of Pennsylvania associate professor Joshua Mosley made a splash in Venice with Dread.

His work, reported the Los Angeles Times' Christopher Knight, used "digitally sophisticated 'claymation' for a melancholic meditation on human alienation from nature, starring 18th-century philosophers Rousseau and Pascal. The evanescence of their forest encounters with a giant beetle, an obtuse cow and a romping dog, projected in a six-minute black-and-white film, is contrasted with plain-spoken bronze sculptures of all the magically animated figures, reducing them to lovely, obsolete trinkets. The philosophical dilemma between mind and matter is beautifully conjured."

The Boston Globe's Ken Johnson called Dread "funny, conceptually intriguing, and technically amazing."

But the strongest vote of confidence came from buyers. After Dread showed in Venice in the international pavilion, Mosley sold one version of it to a private collector - and six to museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Louis Vuitton collection, and the Bergen Museum in Norway.

"It helped establish my career and made it possible for me to produce new work in the long run," said the artist.

Dread was recently shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was the first Philadelphia institution to curate the U.S. Pavilion. Its 1980 exhibition surveyed - with one work each - 66 artists who emerged in the 1960s and '70s. (The museum has no permanent collection, so none of the works shown in Venice is on display at the museum in West Philadelphia.)

But even well before 1980, talent grown in Philadelphia and the area was bringing a distinct strain of American art to Venice. A few of these works traveled to Venice and then, through the peripatetic ways of art, found their way back here again.

Thomas Eakins' The Concert Singer and William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River were shown at the 1920 Biennale and today hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The museum has identified at least nine works in its collection that were shown in Venice - among them Stuart Davis' Something on the Eight Ball in 1954, Juan Gris' Still Life before an Open Window, Place Ravignan in 1956, and Robert Rauschenberg's Flush in 1964. Of these, only the Eakins and the Gris are currently on display.

Eakins' own institution, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, never curated the U.S. Pavilion in Venice. But a long list of artists trained there underlines the academy's position at one point as a leading and progressive art school.

Charles Sheeler's Bucks County Barn from 1918, shown in the 1934 Biennale, resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though it is not on view at the moment. The modernist painter - and photographer - was born in Philadelphia, attended the academy, and owned a farmhouse in Doylestown.

William Glackens - born in Philadelphia, trained at the academy, represented in Venice in 1920 and 1934 - was, along with Robert Henri and John Sloan, part of the Ashcan School of urban realists.

Of those artists to which Philadelphia can lay claim, Sloan is probably the one who had the biggest impact in Venice. Work of the one-time Inquirer illustrator and graduate of Central High - classmates included Glackens and Albert C. Barnes - made appearances at the Biennale in 1920, 1924, 1930, 1932, 1934, 1938, 1940 and 1948.

Others came close. Works of Alexander Calder appeared at the Biennale six times between 1948 and 1976; he took the Grand Prix in sculpture in 1952. Philadelphia-born Joseph Pennell was an early American presence in Venice, starting in 1903 and exhibiting in a total of seven shows.

Pennell was one of the many artists from the late 19th century who defied exact nationality - usually born in the United States, schooled in Munich or Paris, eventually taking up residence in London - but for whom the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was often the first stop in a serious art education.

Among them were Philadelphia-born Thomas Alexander Harrison, who stopped at the academy before becoming an itinerant painter of sumptuous maritime scenes, several of which were shown at three Venice Biennales.

Jeff Koons (represented in 1997), though he has not totally abandoned his birthplace of York, Pa., can hardly be considered of York, with his kitschy inflatables and enormous evocations of colorful balloon poodles.

Others have shown works firmly rooted in indigenous material. Charles Demuth, the watercolorist and oil painter who was always returning to life in Lancaster, educated Venice's 1934 crowd with My Egypt - a view of the concrete grain elevator of the John W. Eshelman Feed Co. Philadelphia's Robert Venturi, who appropriated common-folk vernacular for high-art architecture, showed at Venice in 1976.

But the region's most iconic visual chronicler, the divisive Andrew Wyeth, made only the most fleeting of impressions at the Venice Biennale. His Spool Bed was shown in 1948 - this single appearance arguing that Venice, like any exhibition, inevitably fails as a comprehensive account of important ideas in art.

The Inquirer in Venice

Inquirer culture writer Peter Dobrin will be at the 53d Venice Bienniale through its opening days next week - talking with American artist Bruce Nauman, spending a day with U.S. Pavilion curator Carlos Besualdo of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and covering the art and social scene at the world's largest international art exhibition. Read his work

in the pages of The Inquirer, on, and on his blog, ArtsWatch, at


Peter Dobrin will be blogging from the Venice Biennale at EndText