Visions of America: Art Prints at the DMA

A visit to the “Visions of America” exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art feels a bit like flipping through the pages of a U.S. history book.

The art prints on display depict a U.S. history spanning three centuries, which is so varied that at times feels as if the pieces were selected at random.

The exhibit features images of both Harriet Tubman and Marilyn Monroe, in addition to prints of birds and a gas station. There are mundane images of people relaxing at home, and of a tense boxing match.

You are catching a glimpse of American popular history, which by nature is a diverse story. When the same pieces were shown at the British Museum in London, the exhibit was titled “The American Dream.”

The following are a few pieces that really stood out.

Untitled (Elizabeth Catlett, 1953) 

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Artist Elizabeth Catlett produced this linocut print of legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman leading people who were enslaved to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Chattel produced many prints of Tubman. This particularly powerful but untitled piece is from 1953, and is from the National Gallery Art.

According to the MoMA museum, Catlett said she sought through her art to “present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy.” Catlett learned her style of linoleum cut printmaking in Mexico City in 1946 as part of a training program at the El Taller de Grafica Popular, an artist’s collective that sought to produce “socially engaged public art.” In particular, Catlett wanted to showcase  African-American women and social justice issues.

Catlett lived from 1915 to 2012. According to the Princeton University Art Museum, Catlett was the granddaughter of freed slaves and grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. She studied painting at Howard University and sculpture at the University of Iowa. After studying in Mexico, she married Mexican painter Francisco Mora and became a Mexican citizen in 1962.

Why He Cannot Sleep (Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1866)

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This depiction of Confederate “President” Jefferson Davis published in the Harper’s Weekly political magazine in 1866 shows the fallen leader after the Civil War, as he was serving two years in prison for treason.

According to the DMA, German-born American artist Thomas Nast created this wood engraving image titled “Why He Cannot Sleep” after a newspaper reported that Davis “was not allowed to leave the cell and a bright light was kept burning all night, making it difficult for him to sleep.” The image shows Davis as unable to sleep as Lady Liberty stands above him, pointing toward a nightmare image of war. The skeleton in bed behind Davis is pointing to a bullet hole in his head, and if you look closely, you can see skeletal images of hands to the right pointing in blame at an “unrepentant” Davis.

Nast was a satiric artist who lived from 1840 to 1902. He was known as an editorial cartoonist and caricaturist who came to fame for attacking the political machine of William “Boss” Tweed in New York City in the 1870s. Nast was known as a strong supporter of the Union during the Civil War, and he also strongly opposed slavery. Because of his work in support of the Union and abolitionist causes, he was praised by President Abraham Lincoln. Nast was also a critic of President Andrew Johnson. Nast created the Republican Party’s iconic elephant and also created a popular depiction of Santa Claus.

A Midnight Race on the Mississippi (Frances Flora Bond Palmer, 1860)

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This lithograph titled “A Midnight Race on the Mississippi” by English-born American artist Frances (“Fanny”) Flora Bond Palmerdepicts two steamboats racing across the mighty Mississippi River in the moonlight. The lithograph was published by printing company Currier & Ives. According to the Springfield Museums, steam boat races generated quite a bit of excitement during the time period, and large amounts of money were wagered over such races, which were quite dangerous.

Palmer lived from 1812 to 1876, and operated a lithography business with her husband (she was the main artist, and he was the printer). According to the National Gallery of Art, she immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City in the 1840s. She produced more than 200 lithographs for Currier & Ives. Her work was distributed widely in ads, greeting cards and calendars. However, despite her work’s popular fame she “died in obscurity.”

Truism (Jenny Holzer, 1977)

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This list of quotes is a lithograph by artist Jenny Holzer, created when she was in her 20s. Lines such as the first sentence, “Raise boys and girls the same way,” have been popularly distributed and sold on tee shirts and other items.

According to the MoMA museum, Holzer’s sentences have appeared on billboards and in public spaces such as Times Square. The museum states that, “Multitudes of people have seen them, read them, laughed at them, and been provoked by them. That is precisely the artist’s goal.” Holzer created the sentences while in an independent studies program, and then displayed them as posters around New York.

According to ArtNet, Holzer is known for such text-based public art projects. She has said that, “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people — not necessarily art people — could understand.”

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (Guerrilla Girls, 1989)

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This 1989 poster was a critique of the scarcity of work by women artists on display at the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the “Met”). According to the Tate, the print was one of 30 posters created by anonymous women artists who called themselves the Guerrilla Girls. The group formed in 1984 with the aim of exposing gender and ethnic/racial bias in the New York art world and beyond. The women wore gorilla masks when they went in public, which is reflected in the print above. According to the group’s website, more than 55 people have been members over the years. They state that, “Our anonymity keeps the focus on the issues, and away from who we might be.” The group said it products street projects and posters, and also attacks museums for “bad behavior and discriminatory practices right on their own walls.”

[no title] Marilyn (Andy Warhol, 1967)

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Artist Andy Warhol created this screen print  art image in a series of ten pop art tributes to actress Marilyn Monroe in 1967, who had tragically died just five years earlier. The image above is just one of the ten colorful variations of the same image of Marilyn.

According to the Met museum, Warhol used a publicity photo of Monroe from the film Niagara (1953) to create the images. According to the museum, “Screenprinting was well suited for his art as it enabled him to repeat images derived from photographic sources multiple times—even within the same painting or print—in a variety of media and colors. It also allowed him to highlight both the detached quality of the process and the imperfections (such uneven tone, smudges, gaps, and signs of irregular printing) often found in commercial production.”

According to the Tate, Warhol depicted Marilyn because she reflected his two dominant themes — “death and the cult of celebrity.” Also, initially after Marilyn’s death in 1962, he created the Marilyn Diptych that same year, showing 50 small images of the actress (half in vibrant color and half in black and white).

These are just a few of the striking popular images from Visions of America at the DMA – each visitor is likely to enjoy something different about these historic prints!

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