The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens this fall will present a new permanent collections installation that explores a more expansive and contextualized view of American art history. “Borderlands” opens Nov. 20, 2021, in a suite of rooms in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. To develop the reinstallation, The Huntington partnered with two contemporary artists, Enrique Martínez Celaya (2020–22 Huntington Fellow in the Visual Arts) and Sandy Rodriguez (2020–21 Caltech-Huntington Art + Research Fellow), and secured strategic loans to help re-imagine the historical collections from multiple perspectives.
The exhibition is a reinstallation of portions of The Huntington’s American art collection that date from the 19th through the early 20th century, including works by such renowned artists as Mary Cassatt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer. But, unlike previous installations, “Borderlands” will be organized thematically. It also will feature an education room, where visitors can learn about locally sourced botanical- and mineral-based pigments.
“The Huntington has a responsibility to convey the relevance of historical collections to contemporary audiences and to consider our shared past from multiple perspectives, as we begin to create a vision for the future,” said Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum at The Huntington. “‘Borderlands’ addresses these goals by presenting a more expansive history of American art in a beautiful and thought-provoking installation—from the re-imagined entrance area through a freshly conceived group of galleries, where objects will interact with one another in new ways, drawing connections across media, time, and cultures.”
“Borderlands” will occupy roughly 5,000 square feet of gallery space, highlighting more than 70 works, including paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and video installations.
“To envision the arts in America in terms of the ‘borderlands’ metaphor, we looked at how artworks have registered the crossing of geographic, political, social, linguistic, and personal boundaries,” said Dennis Carr, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington, who leads the project. “The history of the United States has been shaped by innumerable borders, whose endurance or dissolution continue to impact us today.”
A thematic anchor in the exhibition will be a new 8-foot-by-8-foot watercolor painted by Los Angeles–based artist Sandy Rodriguez. For the work, Rodriguez is using locally sourced pigments and colorants, derived from mineral and organic sources, and 23-karat gold applied to amate paper, a native fig-bark paper that was traditionally used in Mexico but outlawed by the Spanish in the 16th century. Rodriguez’s YOU ARE HERE / Tovaangar / El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula / Los Angeles will be a multilingual map of the greater Los Angeles area, representing the topography, language, flora, fauna, and land stewardship in the region over time and illustrating the movement and histories of peoples who have called—and continue to call—the area home. A new video on Rodriguez’s work can be viewed at huntington.org/videos-recorded-programs.
“Like Sandy’s work, we hope ‘Borderlands’ will inspire visitors to consider the relationship between art and land with respect to artistic materials, the movement of artists and objects, and how depictions of the landscape can express and affect our relation to it—and to each other,” Carr said.
Huntington visitors will get their first glimpse of “Borderlands” from hundreds of feet away. Enrique Martínez Celaya’s There-Bound will be painted on the massive glass façade of the Scott Galleries’ north entrance, drawing the eye from across the lawn. There-Bound will depict various kinds of migratory birds winging across the building’s front windows. Martínez Celaya’s project, like the exhibition as a whole, seeks to link the inside of the galleries with the outside, building on the famous landscapes and living collections at The Huntington.
Inside the great doors of the gallery, the glassed-in lobby and loggia will exude a chapel-like effect when There-Bound is illuminated by sunlight. Martínez Celaya is also designing handmade seating for the loggia that will invite visitors to linger and enjoy the view of the garden and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond.
The galleries of “Borderlands” line up along an east-west axis. The first room, called “Homelands,” centers on Rodriguez’s work. A painter who was raised on the California-Mexico border, Rodriguez investigates the methods and materials of painting across cultures, focusing in particular on Indigenous histories and knowledge. In addition to YOU ARE HERE, the room will feature her drawings of botanical species that yield pigments and medicinal treatments for respiratory illnesses or susto (trauma), all of which are especially poignant in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. There also will be a single accordion-fold book (a traditional Mexican book form) that will record Rodriguez’s careful study of botanical specimens at The Huntington. Other works in the display, including a watercolor by Winslow Homer, will complement Rodriguez’s works.
Another gallery room invites visitors to explore the 19th-century expansionist movement with stunning landscape paintings by such masters as Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and Thomas Moran. The installation also demonstrates how paintings often erased Indigenous presence, as though artists had encountered a landscape devoid of human occupation and ready for economic exploitation. “This colonialist view embodied a land-centered conception of nationhood, at a time when landscapes were becoming profoundly altered by rising development and industrialization,” Carr said.
Another “Borderlands” room features American artists working abroad. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unprecedented numbers of American artists traveled abroad to connect with Europe’s history and its flourishing modern art scene. Some found greater freedom from the strictures of race, sexuality, gender, and class than they did at home. Artists were especially inspired by Impressionism, the Aesthetic Movement, and Art Nouveau, represented in this gallery by the works of Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Lockwood de Forest, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among others. Many of these artists were shaped profoundly by their experiences working and traveling in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Nearby, Zenobia in Chains, Harriet Goodhue Hosmer’s monumental marble sculpture, will share a space with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den, which is on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “These works each speak to the idea of breaking down barriers,” Carr said. Hosmer’s life, like that of the ancient queen she sculpted, was defined by rebellion. In her 20s, Hosmer moved to Rome to become a professional sculptor, finding support from a circle of creative expatriate women who broke 19th-century social expectations by living alone, pursuing artistic careers, and, as was the case for Hosmer, being open about their queer identity. Hosmer became one of the most successful American sculptors—male or female—of her era. Nevertheless, when Zenobia was exhibited in the 1862 Great London Exposition, some male critics wrote that a woman could not possess the skill or strength to execute such a monumental work.
The fact that Tanner, an acclaimed African American painter, chose to depict Daniel—a biblical character wrongly condemned to death—underscores how African Americans have been the victims of racial terror, while courts and law enforcement fail to enact justice. “Yet Tanner’s symbolism is a hopeful one,” Carr said. “With his God’s aid, Daniel survives the night.”
Art and Color
A new education room will be a visitor-friendly space for multigenerational families. Didactic displays will focus on the links between art and the natural world, exploring the botanical, mineral, and animal sources of pigments and the movement of certain pigments around the globe. One such pigment is deep-red carmine, which comes from cochineal insects that are endemic to Mexico and parts of South America. The pigment entered the global export trade in the 16th century, reaching Europe and Asia. Some of the displays will link to plants growing in The Huntington’s gardens, visible to visitors in the areas around the American art galleries. The project’s goals include forging links between the inside and outside environments, providing a space for the major collections at The Huntington to be seen together, and exploring Indigenous knowledge and uses of plants, especially in relation to Los Angeles and Southern California.
Support for this project is provided by an anonymous foundation, Carl and Sue Robertson, and the Decorative Arts Trust.