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Art: At Michener, art that celebrates the working man

Ever since the era of the impressionists, nearly a century and a half ago, much art has been about leisure. Well- dressed people stroll on Parisian boulevards. Muscular young men row on the Schuylkill. We see gardens and ballerinas, picnics and boxing matches.

"Miners in a Lift" (1947) by Henry Varnum Poor. (Pennsylvania State University)
"Miners in a Lift" (1947) by Henry Varnum Poor. (Pennsylvania State University)Read more

Ever since the era of the impressionists, nearly a century and a half ago, much art has been about leisure. Well- dressed people stroll on Parisian boulevards. Muscular young men row on the Schuylkill. We see gardens and ballerinas, picnics and boxing matches.

A lot less art has been about what has made mass leisure possible: the extraction and exploitation of fossil fuels, the invention and massive expansion of industrial processes - and often backbreaking labor in dangerous jobs.

The Michener Art Museum show "Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection" offers a different way to observe Labor Day. Its 54 paintings variously document, celebrate, question, and mourn the things we need to do to achieve the comforts of modern life. They date from about 1925 to 1955, with the largest number from the 1930s.

Nearly all the works are from the collection of the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery at Pennsylvania State University, and they depict Pennsylvania as the home of King Coal, Big Steel, and the first Oil Patch. Many contrast the beauty of our ancient, worn-down mountain ranges with the alien shapes and huge scale of coal crackers and steel plants. They show the beauty and the horror of industrial processes that generate immense heat, infernal fire, 30-foot flames, often in close proximity to workers who are often strong but only human.

It opens with Power . . . for the Wheels of Progress (1945) by Rockwell Kent, probably the best-known name in a roster of mostly obscure artists. It echoes the kind of art Hitler and Stalin advocated during the same period and is a powerful if repellent piece of propaganda. We see a muscled young man holding a large piece of coal that is black but glowing against the deep blue sky. Below, we see the masculine form of a streamlined locomotive as it thrusts across a landscape. Through a window, we can see the same young man, presumably feeding coal into the engine of the train.

It's not surprising to learn it was commissioned by a coal-industry organization and used extensively in magazine advertising. Generations of Americans grew up seeing similar imagery urging them to work their way out of the Depression, help win World War II, and realize the ever-expanding promise of postwar life.

It is exactly the kind of work I feared would dominate this exhibition. Fortunately, the vision the show presents is far more nuanced. Industry, and especially steelmaking, offers scenes of light and drama that entice artists. The dangerous work of pouring molten steel and the pyrotechnics of blowing out impurities are most often shown as inherently interesting - and sometimes sublime - but only rarely does it feel as though we are being sold a vision. Rather, we are seeing an interesting aspect of modern life.

Sometimes, we see a kind of heroically precise manual labor, seldom celebrated today, as in two paintings by Christian Jacob Walter that document the making of an enormous lens for the Mount Palomar Observatory. And sometimes, we see vast landscapes of machinery, with little human presence at all, as in the same artist's unexpectedly bucolic view of an oil refinery near Titusville.

The depictions of coal mining are often in views of mountain landscapes dotted with buildings made to accommodate machines but not humans. A label notes that Louise Pershing originally wanted to give her 1936 painting Bituminous Coal Tipple the title Blue Monster. Oddly though, her view of all the human activity generated by the hulking structure that dominates the scene nevertheless implies that this alien form helps animate people's lives.

In general, though the steel industry provided painters with the drama they needed, the dirty work of coal mining drew artists to the dark side of human labor. For example, Edmund Marion Ashe, in an early 1940s painting called Steel, shows sexy young workers in a golden glow; in Work (undated), an exhausted-looking man with a bit of a belly follows fellow laborers down a path that seems to lead to hell.

And in Miners on a Lift (1947), Henry Varnum Poor shows us coal miners on their way into the gloom, with bright lamps on their heads and huge, hungry eyes that seem starved for light. It is a very scary image.

I have no idea what this work looks like at Penn State, but curator Kirsten Jensen has done a fine job of adapting it for the Michener, whose collection includes a lot of art from the same era, but with very different subject matter. Bucks County impressionism was an escape from the industrial society depicted in this show, but there are many cases where the techniques are similar.

The Michener has two other worthwhile current shows. "Veils of Color: Juxtapositions and Recent Work by Elizabeth Osborne" comprises 24 works by the respected Philadelphia painter, including several recent works that reflect, echo, or respond to others she did early in her career. It is not surprising that Osborne, born in 1936, is looking at her career as a whole, and this show emphasizes her consistency, especially her lively use of color, and the tension between representation and the abstract vertical stripes, sometimes nervous, sometimes serene, that might be books, but that are more often emanations of pure energy. (Another Osborne show, "Inside/Out," is on view in Center City at Locks Gallery through Sept. 26.)

In one witty juxtaposition, Audrey and Equinox II (2013) shows us the back of a woman's head as she looks at an earlier abstract painting, Equinox II. The painting we see over her shoulder is not quite the one we see on the wall.

And I loved "Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits," a small selection of photographs, some of them iconic, of some of the jazz greats of the 1940s and '50s. Leonard, who was born and raised in Allentown, said his goal was to make people "see the way the music sounded." Buddy Rich looks joyful, but with a mad, manic edge, just like his drumming. Chet Baker peeks out, passive-aggressively, from behind his trumpet with the same wounded charm we hear in his singing. Good show.



Iron and Coal,

Petroleum and Steel

Through Oct. 25

Veils of Color

Through Nov. 15

Herman Leonard: Jazz Portraits

Through Oct. 11

The Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $18; seniors, $17; college students, $16; ages 6-18, $8; younger than 6, free. EndText