Modern (to circa 1960)

When the North Carolina Museum of Art opened its doors in 1956, there was little in the way of modern art. The collection, heavy on Old Master paintings, all but ignored art after 1850, reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of the Museum’s founders. The Museum’s first director, W. R. Valentiner, argued strongly that a museum should pay attention to the art of our own time. Valentiner donated Richard Diebenkorn’s magnificent Berkeley No. 8 (1954) and secured the gift of Franz Kline’s Orange Outline (1955), a classic work of abstract expressionism. However, Valentiner’s greatest legacy was his bequest of an extraordinary group of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by many of the foremost German modern artists of the early 20th century. Among the works are the joyously crude Panama Dancers (1910–11), by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s vibrant expressionist Portrait of Emy (1919), both signature works of the German avant-garde.

The first generation of American modernists is well represented. Marsden Hartley’s Indian Fantasy (1914), painted in Berlin just before the outbreak of the First World War, conveys the artist’s intense spiritual longing for a world in balance. Lyonel Feininger’s The Green Bridge II (1916), also painted in Germany, employs a quirky cubist style to animate the memory of a working-class neighborhood.

The surrealist realm of dreams and fantasies inspires the work of Paul Delvaux, whose Antinoüs (1958) presents an erotically charged tableau, and Joseph Cornell, whose enigmatic box construction Suzy’s Sun (for Judy Tyler) (1957) suggests at once a child’s treasure chest and a miniature stage set. In both the imagination is left to explain the pieces. The isolation and abandonment of the individual—a theme central to modern art—is explored in such diverse works as Andrew Wyeth’s Winter 1946 (1946) and Alberto Giacometti’s attenuated bronze Woman of Venice IX (1956).

In West Building the Museum’s modern collection occupies several rooms with an expansive suite of galleries devoted to the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.