Andover — The Addison Gallery of American Art pitches a big tent with “In and Out of Place,” its current rumination on how locale shapes the American psyche. Casting widely across era and geography — from the East Coast through the Rockies to the Pacific, from the city to the suburbs to far-flung countryside, from colonialism to roughly right now — the show, in both its volume and breadth of forms, defies a unifying logic, but for one: As we’ve shaped the land, so has it shaped us, and in ways still far from reconciled.
That’s the catch-all, at least — my best guess at a thematic frame for what at times appears to mostly be an opportunity for the Addison to air out its array of in-house riches (all 100-plus pieces here are from its permanent collection). Built into the Phillips Academy prep school, the Addison boasts a collection that would turn most midsize public institutions in the country green with envy.
At its peak, “In and Out of Place,” with its dozens of gems, is the institution doing what it does best: cobbling new stories with old works, and giving them new life. At its worst, it’s still really good, tiling the walls with a who’s who of American art: Homer and Hopper, Evans and Davidson, Hartley and Dove. It includes lesser-known figures, and even the literally unknown: Oscar Bluemner’s hauntingly gloomy “Radiant Night” (1933), a pale house emerging from the inky blackness of enveloping gloom, and the anonymous “He that by the plough would thrive — Himself must either hold or drive,” a folksy canvas of 19th-century homesteaders scratching out a living in the as-yet unbroken earth.
Canny pairings enliven the theme, knitting disparate practices across time and media. Andrea Zittel’s experimental living modules (you’d hesitate to call them “dwellings,” unless coffin-like sleeping pods look like home to you) in the scrubby desert near Joshua Tree National Park share space with a tiny untitled painting — yes, painting — by Walker Evans, of an off-grid shack. The matter-of-fact documentary photography of early-’70s suburbia by Bill Owens sidles up to Laurie Simmons’s “Around the House” photo series from 1976, of imprisoning effects of suburban isolation on her cast of tiny female figurines, trapped in a model home.
It starts to emerge that “In and Out of Place” is less one exhibition than five, grouped by unspoken rubrics. The first room, a catch-all stage-setter, seems a nod to a colonial past and the shifting convention of landscape painting both: Alvin Fisher’s “Covered Wagons in the Rockies” (1837), wending through the mountains aglow in beatific light, or George Loring Brown’s “Landscape With Indian and Dog by a Waterfall.” Brown’s undated piece from the 19th century is, conspicuously, the sole Native American representation in the room.
Abbott Handerson Thayer’s “Monadnock Angel” (1920-21) dominates the space and says much about laying claim. The angel, presiding over New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, all but declares it heaven on earth, fusing Christian myth with North American landscape despite its deeper histories. It’s a hint at the complications of laying claim, period, with which the show seems reluctant to engage. Another hint: A suite of four tiny seascapes from the early 1900s by George Hawley Hallowell steal the show with their moody, near-abstract churn of cloud and water, sand and sky; they hang next to their aesthetic kin in Georgia O’Keeffe’s high-modern “Wave, Night,” a perspective-free scene of a beach at twilight with a swoop of wave cutting past the picture’s edge. Modernism was about nothing so much as starting fresh to leave the past behind, and to me, the tension between past and present is thick.
If you leave that first gallery, as I did, wondering what “In and Out of Place” is trying to achieve, you’ll be relieved to find things snap into sharper focus as you move on. The second gallery explores suburbia’s complicated utopia, with Owens and Simmons, Bruce Davidson’s portraits of New Jersey couples in their modest homes, or Gregory Crewdson’s “Dream House” series, from 2002, in which he shot Hollywooders performing scenes of quiet suburban desperation — Julianne Moore wide-eyed and hunted-looking, propped up in bed in a non-descript rancher.
Suburbia, as housing goes, embodied a modest American dream — a car in every driveway, a chicken in every pot, row upon row of comforting architectural sameness. That it proved to be as oppressively homogenizing and isolating is surely part of the point for “In and Out of Place,” and in the next gallery, the disaffection suburbia meant to remedy is drawn more sharply. We have here a set of extremes: Zittel’s pint-size homesteads, Evans’s painted shack. Evans adds another image, a black and white photograph of a trailer, hunkered bleakly amid ragged palm trees and power lines. A photo by William Eggleston — a sickly-yellow, fraying cabin — adds to the gloom.
William Christenberry, with his 1964 photographs of a ramshackle “House near Marion, Alabama,” seems almost to be willing permanance on the ephemeral: The gallery includes an exacting balsa-wood scale model Christenberry made of the house, giving it, in art, a form of eternal life. All the raggedness feels like buildup to a moment of pure extravagance: an opulent 1812 woven piece by Abigail Barker Noyes, of Mount Vernon — George Washington’s plantation, sacred American ground. I was struck by this: the palatial versus the tumbledown, permanent versus fleeting, an apt metaphor for the have and have-not that has been as constant a feature of American life as the ground beneath our feet.
In the next gallery, the show bulks up into dense urban scenes. The simmering dread feels more urgent, and starts to boil. John Whorf’s “Day in July,” a bleary, bleeding watercolor of New York City tenements punctured by a railroad bridge, is arrestingly bleak. It chafes, and mightily, with the crisply-made black and white photographs of Berenice Abbott and Beaumont Newhall, which capture the heroic heights of a sky-high city from an ant’s eye view.
That’s a setup for a last chapter, which Mark Tobey’s “Lines of the City” helps hammer home with its claustrophobic, manically oppressive abstract tangle of white on sickly yellow-brown. In the final gallery, we arrive at what feels like a repository of urban alienation. The city is not a friendly place, and leave it to Edward Hopper to bring that home. There are other works in that final gallery — William Gordon Shields’s “Flag Day,” a yellowy 1917 photograph of Old Glory draped above a sullen New York Street — though Hopper’s “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, truly feels like the period of a very long sentence all on its own. It’s searing in its desolation, pale light bleaching the concrete deck of the bridge, a lone figure loping into shadow, exquisite in its isolation.
It is bleak as only Hopper can be, with its tight restraint and simmering angst. It’s part of what makes him so quintessential an American artist, and made me think, with all that came before, if the gallery might just drop “In and” from the show’s title, and leave it at that.
IN AND OUT OF PLACE
At the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through July 31. 978-749-4015, www.addisongallery.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte