New York Times

November 16th, 2001

Seeing the Circus Without Peanuts and Cotton Candy

HARTFORD — If you, like some of us, are a grinch who shuns the circus, no problem. You can always savor the experience in art. From the late 19th century, when painters in Paris like Degas and Seurat discovered the potential of the Big Top, there has been no shortage of satisfying im­agery in this country as well as in Europe for those who prefer to avoid the circus live.

In fact, seeing “The Circus in 20th-Century American Art” at the Wads­worth Atheneum Museum of Art here is almost as good as watching the real thing. In the show, strutting ringmasters reign, clowns caper, ac­robats soar, lion tamers engage in derring-do and sideshow freaks dis­play themse1ves with such vivacity that the f1avor of the circus pervades the entire museum.

The show, organized by the Ameri­can Fedetation of Arts, has more than 100 “acts,” in painting, sculp­ture, drawings, prints, video and pho­tography, by a full range of artists from Milton Avery and Alexander Calder to Diane Arbus and George Segal. It’s an out-of-tent experience that could appease the most die-hard circus trotters, even children.

In the show’s catalog Eugene R. Gaddis, archivist at the Wadsworth, writes that the modern circus was born in 1776, when’ a British horse­man named Philip Astley found that centrifugal and centripetal forces could keep him standing on his steed’s back as it galloped in a circle. A born Impresario, he began to give public performances in a specially designed ring, then added live music, a strong man, jugglers, a tightrope walker, trained dogs, acrobats and a clown act, “Bill Button, or the Tai­lor’s Ride to Brentford.”

Astley’s ideas soon came to Amer­ica by way of John Bill Ricketts, a Scotsman, who gave a performance in Philadelphia In 1793. The Ricketts circus toured the East and was even attended by George Washington, ap­parently a fan of trick riding. 

The golden age of the circus in America ran from about 1871 to 1917, when it was ruled by big-time entre­preneurs like P. T. Barnum and the Ringling Brothers. But competing entertainments and other factors led to the decline of these riotous extrav­aganzas, and they became creaky, timeworn public spectacles, thought suitable only for children and con­senting adults.

Since the mid-1970’s, however, a revival has been under way. In the new-style spectaculars, like the Big Apple Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Cir­cus Flora, the Pickle Family Circus and others, sophistication and savvy prevail, returning the circus to its 18th-century European roots while keeping its flamboyant spirit alive.

Just as the circus itself was ex­ported from Europe, so was circus art. Taking cues from the French avant-garde in the late 19th century, which looked favorably on the mix of low culture with high, the group of New York artists known as the Ash-can School turned to vernacular American themes, not least of them the circus. Among the clowns that abound in this show, several were painted by Ashcan artists.

John Sloan’s poignant “Clown Making Up” (1910) depicts the other side of buffoonery with a suited-up performer transforming his private face to a public grimace by candle­light. On the other hand, George Luks’s “Clown” (1929), coolly main­tains his audience presence as a skinhead in white face with red ears and nose, blue lips and blackened eyes, dressed in a blue jester’s suit with a huge yellow collar and holding a daisy, against a varicolored back­ground of curvy abstract forms.

But no American painter has sur­passed the insights of Walt Kuhn (1880-1949) into the quixotic charac­ter of clowns. A graduate of the Ash-can School, later influenced by mod­ernists like Matisse and Picasso, Kuhn saw his performers as moody, intense people whose flamboyant get-up hid vulnerable personalities.

Two impressive Kuhn paintings in the show are “The Blue Clown” (1931), a dignified portrait of a seri­ous artist who almost against his will wears white face and a brash outfit of blue and gold, and “White Clown” (1929), a full-length close-up of a young clown in a relaxed state of tension, wearing a tight-fitting white body suit and gazing somberly at the viewer.

A newer and rougher take on clowns is provided by Bruce Nau­man’s sinister video piece of 1987, “Clown Torture (Dark and Stormy Night With Laughter),” starring Mr. Nauman himself. In traditional makeup, seized with bouts of desper­ate laughter, he projects the notion that clowns are not — to say the least — always the sympathetic fall guys they seem to be in the ring. Too bad another of Mr. Nauman’s 1987 video­tapes on the subject, simply called “Clown Torture” and starring a clown on the toilet, has not been included. It’s hilarious.

No show about the circus could be complete without the work of Calder, whose famous “Cirque Calder,” made in Paris from wire, cork and bits of cloth and performed by the artist, was a hit with the Parisian avant-garde. A group of Calder’s playful pen-and-ink circus drawings, dating from 1931-32, is on view, along with a 1961 video by Carlos Vilardebo of Calder himself animating a per­formance of Cirque Calder.

Among the show’s more vibrant works in 3-D are George Segal’s life-size “Trapeze” (1971), a plaster fig­ure of an acrobat on the bar soaring high over viewers’ heads, and “Drown the Clown” (1990), by Polly Apfelbaum, three empty but well-worn clown costumes (including a child’s) that hang on a wall, a haunt­ing, nostalgic tribute to their former occupants and the uncertainties of their lives.

One of the exhibition’s distinguish­ing features is its wealth of photo­graphs from the midcentury to now by a sparkling roster that includes Arbus, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Kimberley Gremil­lion, Mary Ellen Mark, Lisette Mod­el, Luke Swank and Edward Weston, among others. Mr. Davidson’s black-and-white “Dwarf Series” (1958) searingly reveals the public and pri­vate persona of a pint-size clown named Jimmy Armstrong.

Rhona Bitner impresses with a group of exquisite action photographs of per­formers, in color, at the peak of their acts. Altogether, this show is a three-ring performance.

As a kind of postscript, but an important one, a separate installa­tion is devoted to Chick Austin (1901-1957), the Wadsworth’s dynamic and memorable director from 1927 to 1944. A circus devotee from age 9, when he attended a performance in Paris, Austin sometimes appeared in public dressed as a ringmaster, quite appropriately, considering the many innovative activities he presided over at the museum.

The memorabilia that fill this sec­tion relate not only to Austin’s cir­cus-related activities at the Wads­worth but later at the Ringing Mu­seum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., where he opened the Museum of the American Circus. At the Wadsworth, the installation touches on examples of art acquired and shown by Austin, from the 18th-century carnival scenes to harlequins by Picasso, and has personal albums and costume designs by Pavel Tchelitchew for a circusy gala, presided over by Austin at the Wadsworth in 1936, along with its only surviving costume.

“The Circus in 20th-Century Ameri­can Art” is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Matn Street, Hartford, (860) 278-2670, through Jan. 6.