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Horse Tales: American Images and Icons 1800--2000

October 14 - December 30, 2001


"Horse Tales: American Images and Icons 1800--2000," an exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art, demonstrates the varied ways in which the image of the horse has infused our culture. Over 150 fascinating objects from the fine and decorative arts, graphic design, photography, numismatics, sculpture, and popular culture are on view in this show which was originated by the Museum. The installation was designed to demonstrate how similar images have diverse meanings depending on context.

Just about anyone growing up in 20th-century America knows about horses. They appeared for years on television screens as the loving companions of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Ben Cartwright and Matt Dillon. Boys spent hours enraptured by the plastic four-legged variety while girls fantasized about Black Beauty. The flying Pegasus at every Mobil station added a dash of red to the urban landscape while The Marlboro Man galloped across American billboards, tempting the beholder to try a smoke. Of course, these horses weren't the real thing. The fact is, the closest most of us got to a Colt, Mustang, or Pinto was in a parking lot - with a few exceptions. There were those who were fortunate enough to keep horses as pets or use them in cattle roundups or race them. And some city kids got their pictures taken, sitting on a pony in front of a brick wall. (left: Andy Warhol, Mobil, Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts)

At one time in our history, horses were the chief source of power. Before the Industrial Revolution, they helped us sow and reap, and get from place to place. As the population shifted to urban areas, the horse declined as a physical presence, yet its image grew markedly stronger. The horse became a symbol of power and prestige, becoming an icon in American visual culture. Increasingly, that image was used by artists in a variety of mediums as a metaphor.

"The objects in Horse Tales document the complex role of the horse in articulating American stories, whether personal, regional, or national," explains Ezra Shales, co-curator with Dr. Susan H. Edwards. "Each work of art has its own peculiar and distinct voice, and articulates a different way of ordering the world."

A beloved image in art from prehistoric times to the present, the horse has been the subject of many museum exhibitions. "But this will be the first to use equine imagery to illustrate that the transition in America from pre- to a post-industrial nation was a complex tale, and the first to take into account the diversity of cultures and traditions that have coexisted in this country and influenced American visual culture," explains Dr. Edwards, who is the executive director of the Katonah Museum of Art; Mr. Shales is its former education director. "The horse is a powerful symbol for people to experience," Mr, Shales adds. "It exists simultaneously in all time periods of our culture and in all mediums, in high art as well as popular art."

Historically, artists were commissioned to paint portraits of famous racehorses and trotters, as well as portraits of wealthy patrons who posed with their prized companions. Thousands of paintings also prominently feature horses depicted in battle, mythological scenes and landscapes. Horse Tales presents works by Alfred Jacob Miller, Frederic Remington, and Currier & Ives. Among the distinguished 20th-century artists in the show are Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Mark Frank, Elie Nadelman, Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Bill Traylor, Andy Warhol, and Susan Rothenberg. Installations and montages by contemporary artists are also included. The Museum's Sculpture Garden showcases a site-specific work by Michael Ballou, titled Round Up, that brings together numerous saw horses lent by Museum supporters. (left: Kazuhito Saro, Secretariat, 11/18/99, acrylic on board, Courtesy of US Postal Service)

Additionally, there are exciting pieces by folk artists and Native American craftsmen, plus books, currency, coins, badges, broadsides, cigar boxes, sheet music, trading cards, jewelry, magazines, figurines, and other ephemera that ingeniously illustrate the theme. Many of these objects were contributed by national and local historical societies and museums - from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Katonah Village Library; the Museum of Modern Art in N.Y., the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Somers Historical Society in Somers, N.Y.

Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated 48-page catalogue with essays by Dr. Edwards, Mr. Shales, and Deborah Bright, Professor of Art History and Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. The preface was written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, an editorial writer for The New York Times. In "The Horse Tales We Tell," Mr. Shales discusses how American artists have used horses to convey narratives, and how the horse - appearing in entertainment and advertisement imagery - has became a nostalgic symbol.

"Recall the stories of Hernando Cortes and Paul Revere, George Custer and Sitting Bull, and Ichabod Crane," he writes. "Our familiarity with horses makes these histories and legends more accessible to the imagination." Horses inform American stories from diverse ethnic and regional cultures, including Native American myths and New England folktales. "Twentieth century artists create idiosyncratic horse tales and use the horse...as commentary, subterfuge, and autobiography, or empathize with the horse in psychological and emotional ways."

In "Horses, In Focus," Dr. Edwards examines the impact of photography on visual culture and the use of the horse as an icon in related mediums. "In 1800, the average American citizen lived close to nature, and consequently to horses, but was a marginal participant in the nation's visual culture," she says. "The inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries brought revolutionary change...The image of the horse was increasingly co-opted to suggest power, speed, reliability, status, ruggedness, sexuality, and wildness... Photography, film, and the cult of celebrity, created by both, became an end as well as a means in artistic production."

In her essay, "Horse Crazy," Deborah Bright observes that young girls seem to be obsessed with horses, and many adult women who had been and remain lovers of horses, are "dismayed by the idea that their equine attachments might have socially subversive undertones." What it boils down to is this: "Embracing and identifying with the sensuous beauty and power of the horse, kicking up its heels and running free across boundless fields of dreams, is a powerful fetish to ward off the real-world constriction of women's physicality, power, and presence in a society that still fears and belittles these," writes Ms. Bright. "Looked at this way, horse-craziness is nothing less than a form of self-love."

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Katonah Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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