Remembering A Master
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art celebrates Carroll Cloar in the 100th year of his birth.
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993 Where The Southern Cross The Yellow Dog, 1965 Casein tempera on Masonite Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Brooks Fine Arts Foundation Purchase 65.17 ©Estate of Carroll Cloar
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In 2005, shortly before Stanton Thomas was hired as a curator at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, he was admiring works in the permanent collection and discovered Carroll Cloar.
“I saw Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog and thought it was the most beautiful American regional painting I’d seen in years,” says Thomas. “Ever since that moment I’ve wanted to do a Cloar exhibit.”
His wish, and several years of dedicated labor, come to fruition on June 8th, as the Brooks opens an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cloar — the Arkansas native who became Memphis’ most famous artist, described as a Southern surrealist, a magic realist, and an American master. On display throughout the downstairs galleries will be approximately 80 of his paintings loaned by such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as perhaps 50 private collectors.
And the Brooks itself, in its permanent collection, boasts 14 of his works.
The show, sponsored by Boyle Investment Company, is titled “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South” — and Thomas believes that title captures what the artist represents for many people. “I liked the idea of memory in the title. Not just his but ours. He painted familiar things. He portrayed the commonality of American experience. If the schoolhouse wasn’t yours, it was your grandparents’. He’s the small town in all of us.”
Though the images in Cloar’s paintings are familiar, the works themselves can be deceptively complicated. “Cloar looks simple,” says Thomas, “but you begin to take apart the pieces, you see they’re really profound.” For instance, Cloar’s sympathy toward African Americans comes through in several works, including those that depict Cloar’s childhood friend, Charlie Mae. “It’s remarkable to have a Southern painter depict very graciously and generously images of black Southerners.”
Within many of Cloar’s works are elements of a story and “he was a beautiful writer himself,” Thomas adds. “He once wrote that when he was a child he thought some great magical power, a genie or fairy, could reach into the Tyronza River and pull the summer days out, one after the other like a string of fish. That’s a great mental image. Every time I see one of those giant orange sinking suns, I think of those days and Cloar’s words.”
The process of requesting major museums to loan their Cloar paintings to the “Crossroads of Memory” exhibition required time, dedication to detail, and no small amount of money. “To do a show like this, you start writing the museums as soon as possible and probably visit them all to see the works and to be sure they’re in good condition to travel.
“It’s expensive,” Taylor adds. “The museums charge a loan fee and a packing fee. The paintings require a crate specially made for it, so it can be shipped in a climate-controlled setting. We have a truck that gathers them up and drives them across the U.S. to Memphis.”
One institution — the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. — loaned five of its 11 Cloar paintings. “Mr. [Joseph] Hirshhorn himself purchased these five, all very good, very early Cloar works,” says Thomas. “People have been extraordinarily generous.”
During this “Summer of Cloar,” as Thomas calls it, five other institutions are also having Cloar exhibits. Among these are the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, the U of M Libraries Special Collections, Christian Brothers University, David Lusk Gallery, and DeltaARTS in West Memphis. “We’re trying to cross-promote all of them,” says Thomas. When the Brooks exhibit ends on September 15th, it will travel to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, then to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
In conjunction with “Crossroads of Memory” are numerous activities and public programs. Music lovers can participate in a singalong featuring the songs from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? — the era of Cloar’s childhood. They can also listen to the exhibit audio tour that includes songs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Cloar himself. “He was what you might call a cowboy crooner,” says Thomas, “and sounded a little like Marty Robbins.” Literary junkies can access a summer reading list with a link to all the great Southern Gothic writers — O’Connor, Welty, Faulkner, Wolfe — as a nod to the Gothic undertones in some of Cloar’s work. And explorers can take a bike excursion, or a car ride if they prefer, that will start in Earle, Arkansas, where Cloar was born, and go up Highway 49, where participants will see such landmarks as the 13-foot-tall grave marker that inspired the painting Angel in the Thorn Patch; Gibson Bayou Church, which Cloar attended as a child; the adjacent cemetery; and Cloar Road. “Then we’ll head back to Earle and see the train depot,” says Thomas. “This will get people out in the Delta not only to appreciate Cloar but the landscape he knew and loved. I’ve been having a great time with all of this.”
The curator’s enthusiasm for the exhibition is contagious. “People have a very rare opportunity to see these pieces all together. We’re so fortunate to get these loans from major institutions. I think a challenge of getting people to a museum is that they’re intimidated and don’t know what to do there. But most of us have driven across the Delta or to Earle, and to see those places elevated and transformed by this artist’s work is very much appealing and touches something inside us.”
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine. Her in-depth article about the artist, “The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar,” was published in November 1993. A slightly revised version ran in June 2011.
For more information about this exhibition or dates of special events, visit brooksmuseum.org.