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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Florida Art

Moments Away, Rodale Gonzales. Disney changed Florida and it's art forever.
I have a special affinity for Florida. My younger brother lives there (Miami Beach). My parents practically did too. They were the proverbial "snow birds" going down from Ohio every winter for about three months, living in their motorhome, alternating for two weeks at a time between Kissimmee and the Homestead-Florida City area south of Miami. My wife and I made our first trip to Florida in 1973 shortly after Walt Disney World opened specifically to see what a billion dollars plopped down in a central Florida orange grove might look like. It was worth the trip. We've gone back a time or two. Universal City and Sea World notwithstanding, it's still the single greatest work of art in Florida, perhaps the whole country. Our most recent trip a couple years ago was to see the only part we'd never visited, Disney's Animal Kingdom. We came away realizing we were getting too old for such foolishness.
Here it is, The Great Florida Sunset, 1887, Martin Johnson Heade. Take a good look, it's the last painting you'll see here featuring palm trees or sunsets.
The problem with exploring the art of Florida is getting around, or past, the one great symbol of Floridian art--all the damned palm trees. In preparing a gallery of Sunshine State art for this review I was almost to the point that if I saw another palm-lined sunset over the everglades, I was going to upchuck my orange smoothie all over my Key West beach towel. Like so many states that sprawl across so many latitudes, Florida does not seem like a single state, but three or four blended together, from the dry flatlands in the north to the alligator swamps of the south bound together by a chain of beaches encompassing most of a state so flat that it's highest point is barely twelve feet above sea level (a tough, boring problem for landscape painters). Near those beaches, the real estate is garlanded with gorgeous million-dollar homes and hotels backed up by sprawling, multi-million-dollar golf courses lined by a belt of concrete block bungalows built on backfill from shallow lakes and still shallower wetland marshes. And hovering like guardian angels over it all guessed it...palm trees...millions and millions of palm trees, some so bug ugly the state's periodic grass fires might well be seen as a blessing in disguise.
Eyes To the Okeechobee, Jason Walker
Colonel Zachary Taylor on the eve of the battle of Okeechobee, December 24, 1837.
If the state's geography is something of a strange mixture, there is also in contention about four distinct cultures. There's the original Native-American presence which tends to be buried somewhat by the other, more powerful cultures. Jason Walker's Eyes to the Okeechobee (above) marks the beginning of the end of much of the Native American culture in Florida art. It would be hard to overstate the impact that white settlers and the turn-of-the-century Art Deco sun seekers had upon the tropical peninsula following statehood in 1845. Within fifty years and specifically with the coming of the railroad south, Florida went from a backwater sandbar to a retirement real estate bonanza. Despite a lot of boom and bust during the first half of the 20th century, marked by cheap motels and mom and pop tourist traps (below), Disney ushered the state into the modern era.

Matlacha Art Gallery, Naples Florida
Blue Morpho Butterfly, Nancy Tilles,
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
On May 27th, 1969 the bulldozers arrived in Kissimmee followed a few short years later by those like my parents--Yankees in search of a sunny relief from the torturous northern winters. Their one goal seems to have been to cheapen all the other cultures with their glitzy, high end lifestyle or their clumsy low-end "campers," as my parents called them. And finally there is the Spanish/Cuban/Haitian/polyglot-Caribbean culture which, somehow, seems more native and authentic than all the others, despite their presence having dated primarily from the 1960s. These four cultures meld into the essence of Floridian art. It's a strong, hearty, spicy brew, each ingredient present in unequal quantities and not always in the best of taste. But it's an art like none other in this country or any other country on earth.

Florida's Finest, W. Stanley Proctor, Tallahassee, Florida

Endeavor, Lucy West
Two major events brought incredible change to Florida and it's art--the first was air-conditioning. The second was the "space race." The science of compressed Freon reached an economic tipping point after WW II in which virtually anyone could afford the ugly metal boxes hanging from their windows, humming night and day in an attempt to make seventy degrees the national temperature. Florida's horrendous "unhealthy" humidity seemed to virtually disappear overnight, relegated to the status of a minor nuisance. Without air-conditioning, Miami Beach would still be a string of hurricane prone boutique hotels, Miami International wouldn't be international, Mickey Mouse would never have taken up residence, and perhaps the same could be said for NASA. Although you're unlikely to ever see a painting of an air-conditioner in any Floridian art, without them, there would literally be no tourists to buy Floridian art.

The Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.
The building itself is hurricane proof. I'm not so sure about the entrance glassware.
With wealth comes art. Florida has a total of 530 museums. Of that number, 103 are art museums. Another eight are planned, while 21 have closed their doors in recent years. Apart from art, the list includes museums housing such Floridian mainstays as golf, shipwrecks, sunken treasures, sponges, circus items, knives, prison paraphernalia, and of course, spacecraft. In the realm of exotic art, there's the WEAM (World Erotic Art Museum) in Miami. Of course I can't even mention them all here, much less do them justice as to quality, size, and the content of their holdings. Of them all, however, let me mention just one which, if you have to choose just one, you should make the effort to explore. It's the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (above).

Daddy Longlegs of the Evening, Hope!, 1940, Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali never lived in Florida, and if he ever set foot in the state, it was only for a few hours to dedicate his museum here. No, Dali never lived in Florida, but one of his most avid collectors did--Reynolds and Eleanor Morse. They bought their first Dali way back in 1943 Daddy Longlegs of the Evening, Hope! (above) painted in 1940. Their collection of Dali works grew so large they had to build a museum to house it, and though it was designed by Yann Weymouth, it looks as it Dali himself might have conjured it up. Inside hangs a giant painted tribute by Dali to the one man who made possible Florida with all its cute little hotels, it's hundreds of museums, it's Magic Kingdom, it's island spaceport, and all the zillions of painted palm trees polluting the world of Floridian Art--Christopher Columbus.

The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959 Salvador Dali


1 comment:

  1. How about the Florida Highwaymen for a palm tree sunset filled view of the state?
    They do have an interesting story and so Florida in their art.