'Figure in Red Room,' finished by Mary Ann Aitken in 1986, an oft-overlooked artist from the Cass Corridor era. (Tim Thayer)
You know Detroit’s recent reputation as an artistic center has acquired real heft when two New York City art galleries host a show about the Motor City at the same time.
“Another Look at Detroit,” curated by Detroit native Todd Levin, is showing simultaneously at two galleries on New York’s west side, Marianne Boesky Gallery and the Marlborough Chelsea gallery. The shows run through Aug. 8.
With more than 100 pieces representing 50-plus artists across 150 years of Detroit history, the exhibit amounts, in Levin’s words, to “a sprawling tone poem evoking the city where I was born and raised.”
Levin, 53, is emphatic on what the show is not — it’s not an “Up with Detroit” show. It’s not an exercise in ruin porn. It doesn’t just focus on glories past like the Cass Corridor movement, or the uptick in artistic activity of the past several years.
“Anyone could organize a show on art by young artists working in the city today,” Levin says. But Detroit’s arty side, he notes, didn’t just blossom yesterday.
“I felt if I was going to organize an exhibition outside Detroit that it was crucial,” Levin says, “to demonstrate the breadth of artistic inspiration the city has provided to people born there, as well as those who’ve passed through.”
Most people are unaware, he says, that Detroit’s artistic history reaches well into the 19th century. “But you rarely see that work. So this was a chance to dust that off and put it in a spotlight next to art being made now.”
Among the artists dusted off is Robert Duncanson, an African-American who painted before and after the Civil War, and whose landscapes evoke the Hudson River School. Four of his pieces are at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“One of his paintings, ‘Morning,’ is dated 1863,” Levin says, “the year Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And it’s clear he’s drawing a metaphor with the Proclamation representing a new morning for the entire world.”
Another mid-19th century artist in the show is Duncanson contemporary John Mix Stanley, a chronicler of the American West and Native Americans. Says Levin, “He’s got a great portrait of Chief Pontiac.”
In setting up the show, Levin has paired the historic with the very modern, including pieces by artists who are indeed working in the city today. On that list are sculptor and photographer Scott Hocking, sculptor Marie T. Hermann and painter Scott Reeder.
But you can hardly do a show on Detroit art without the Cass Corridor artists, so James Chatelain, Ellen Phelan, Michael C. Luchs, Robert Sestok and others are represented as well.
Levin says when he brought up the idea of a Detroit show, Marianne Boesky was immediately interested, both because of the city’s growing reputation and because she has a personal connection, though she grew up in New York. Her grandfather owned Boesky’s Deli — a longtime landmark at 12th and Hazelwood on the west side.
“My parents moved to New York just in time for my birth,” Boesky explains in an email, “but both of them and all my extended family are Detroiters, and that factor loomed large in my childhood and how I was raised.
“Given the wide range of dramas threatening to take this resilient city down,” she adds, “I wanted to shine a bright light on all this city has offered to produce some of the most successful and creative people in my lifetime.”
'Another Look at Detroit'
Through Aug. 8
Marianne Boesky Gallery
509 W. 24th St., New York
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
545 W. 25th St, New York
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday