Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Boca Raton Social Diary

John Kelly, president of Florida Atlantic University, and Heather Coltman, Ph.D., dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, welcomed more than 100 guests to an opening reception for an exhibition of Florida's idyllic landscape paintings by A. E. Backus and the Florida Highwaymen at the Ritter Gallery on the Boca Raton campus.
Local Color: The Art of A. E. Backus & Florida's Highwaymen
By Augustus Mayhew

Boca Raton's milieu of highbrow artifice — its spectacle of marble foyers, crystal chandeliers and gated communities — may appear to be the last place where you might expect to find an art gallery spotlighting Florida's treasured original landscapes. Nonetheless, the Ritter Gallery at Florida Atlantic University has provided a scholarly showcase for artist A. E. "Bean" Backus, Florida's ubiquitous mid-century landscape painter, and his students, indigent African-Americans who emulated his techniques, developed their own eclectic genre, endured the dehumanizing limitations imposed by segregation, and are today revered as Florida's Highwaymen. While the Highwaymen's works lack Beaux-Arts' skills and formulations or Art Basel's standards, they express a captivating virtuosity. Although picturesque shorelines once covered with shells and lined with beach shacks are now walled with mansions and condominiums, and the Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain may be the state's most prominent landscape attribute, the Ritter Gallery's extensive show for a "rum drinking Florida cracker" and the legacy of his surprising array of pupils makes for a compelling study of Florida's too often minimized art history.

Here are some of my impressions and a look at some of the Ritter Gallery show's images, otherwise accessible today by canoe, airboat, swamp buggy, or helicopter, and a few Backus and Highwaymen works owned by a private collector in Vero Beach.
Addison Mizner's quixotic vision for Boca Raton was never realized. During World War II, the Boca Raton Army Air Base was built on 5,000 acres that after the war was transformed into the site for Florida Atlantic University. Today 35,000 students are enrolled at FAU. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Today's amalgam of settings and styles may claim to be rooted in Boca's past although they clearly lack the regard for scenic surroundings that once attracted visitors to Florida.
Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, landscape. Long gone are the original plantings and the queue of low-key Bermuda-style houses that once occupied RPY&CC's streets fronting the waterways and golf course, now replaced with Boca Raton's grandiose showplaces.
Hermann Ottomar Herzog (1832-1932). Bull Frog Creek. Oil on canvas. Herzog was believed to be the earliest of visiting artists who spent winters in Florida painting pristine landscapes.
A. E. Backus & Florida's Highwaymen: History Commerce & Art
Ritter Gallery Florida Atlantic University
September 15, 2016 – November 19, 2016

A.E. Backus and Florida's Highwaymen: History, Commerce and Art centers on an exhibition of selected original Backus works owned by Florida Atlantic University and an approximate number of Highwaymen paintings loaned by regional collectors. Public lectures and gallery talks by Florida-based scholars will enlighten visitors on the artists' social, historical and political contexts. A panel discussion among several contemporary African-American visual artists will critically examine and offer perspectives on the content, stylistic renderings, and aesthetics of these paintings. The University's collection of Backus paintings came to FAU through a bequest from Thomas F. Fleming.
Blue Field Pines, 1949. Oil on canvas. A. E. Backus, artist.
A. E. "Bean" Backus
Backus at his Easel, 1970. Oil on canvas. Michael Sitaras, artist. Florida Atlantic University Foundation.
Seminoles in Bean Fields, c. 1952-1953. Oil on board.
Nassau Docks, 1952. Oil on board. A. E. Backus, artist.
W. Rod Faulds, MA, is director of FAU's University Galleries.
The exhibit's project director Arlene Fradkin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in FAU's anthropology department.
Jacaranda Tree, 1971. Oil on canvas. A. E. Backus, artist.
A historian of the American South, Evan Bennett, Ph.D., associate professor in the FAU history department, spoke at the reception on Backus & The Highwaymen Paintings: Idyllic Images and the Florida Dream.
Coon Creek. Oil on canvas. A. E. Backus, artist.
Afternoon Clouds, c. late 1950s. oil on canvas. A.E. Backus, artist.
Five Hibiscuses. C. 1950s. Oil on canvas. A. E. Backus, artist.
Laurie Carney, director of development for the Schmidt College of Arts and Letters.
Visual artist Khaulah Naima Nuruddin, MFA, and Dean Heather Coltman. A member of FAU's fine art department, Nuruddin will teach a winter term course on Blaxploitation Cinema: The Representation of African-American Culture in 1970s Cinema.
Although the Ritter Gallery's ceiling is low and, for me, there were a few too many spotlights, the exhibition does not disappoint.
The Florida Highwaymen
The HighwayMen Trail

Once dismissed as "kitschy hotel pictures," The Highwaymen's vivid compositions have become collectible, appreciated for their idiosyncratic simplicity as sensational and fantastic as a surreal landscape.
The original Highwaymen.
The work of Roy McLendon, Mary Ann Carroll, Livingston Roberts, Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, and Willie Daniels. Described as "quirky and seductive," the loosely banded Ft. Pierce group's paintings began to develop a larger diverse audience after they were branded The Highwaymen during the early 1990s.
James Gibson (b. 1938), Highwayman artist
The remarkable James Gibson. A great pleasure meeting Jim, one of the original Highwaymen. Two weeks ago I was archiving a client's Highwaymen artwork in Vero Beach signed "J. Gibson," then having no idea that I would meet him the following week. While I am aware of Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects from Cimabue to Our Times (1550), I was captivated by Gibson's website biography, as well as those of the other Highwaymen. Extraordinary lives.
Now that I have developed an increasing appreciation for The Highwaymen's aesthetic, I admit that for years I mistakenly gave these paintings only a cursory glance.
Highwayman artist Mary Ann Carroll was the only woman in the group. In 2012, Carroll and James Gibson were recognized for their work by First Lady Michelle Obama at the Florida House in Washington, DC.
Oil on Upson Board. Mary Ann Carroll, artist.
In November, Vendome Press will be publishing Tropical Light: The Art of A. E. Backus by Natasha Kuzmanovic.
Private Collections, Vero Beach
A. E. Backus & The Florida Highwaymen
This magnificent painting by A. E. Backus offers a rare perspective on a Seminole family making their way through the Everglades. Mark & Hildie Tripson Collection.
This splendid painting of a Seminole encampment by A. E. Backus is in one of the dining rooms at the Ocean Grill Restaurant, Vero Beach. Sexton Collection.
Backus painted the lavatory doors at the Ocean Grill, Vero Beach. Sexton Collection.
Native and Donkey, c. 1950s. A. E. Backus, artist. Ocean Grill Restaurant, Vero Beach. Sexton Collection.
Boat in Harbor. A. E. Backus, artist. Ocean Grill Restaurant, Vero Beach. Sexton Collection.
This early Highwayman landscape has its original wood frame. James Gibson, artist. Sexton Collection.
Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur