Although often overshadowed by the National Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (formerly the National Museum of American Art) possesses the largest collection of American artwork in the world. While its quarters in Washington's Old Patent Office Building are being renovated, 500 of its best objects are traveling to dozens of regional venues across the country. These catalogs represent half of the museum's eight thematic exhibitions. Each book is a carbon copy of its sister publications in format, tone, number of works, and level of detail or lack thereof. Each is a handheld version of the show itself and nothing more: there is no index or bibliography and only the slimmest of supplementary texts. After a paragraph of summary embedded in a boilerplate introductory essay, roughly 50 works are shown in large color plates and accompanied by a two-paragraph caption resembling what one could find in gallery wall labels. While sometimes straining to point out the obvious, these brief comments are nevertheless often piquant observations of each piece's aesthetic values. With such an exceptional collection to select from, the shows are curatorial tours de force. Modernism & Abstraction is an outstanding arrangement of 20th-century artwork with many landmark works by giants of the American avant-garde, while Arte Latino presents a great variety of style, media, and subject matter within a collection of mostly contemporary pieces by Latino-American artists. A good introduction to the genre, Contemporary Folk Art is an interesting potpourri of assemblages and paintings both na ve and savvy. Scenes of American Life focuses almost exclusively on the lives of common citizens and is dominated by Depression-era paintings and murals. These works are nicely illustrated, but with little supportive text they can be recommended only for libraries not already owning the museum's 1995 or 1985 catalogs. Douglas F. Smith, Oakland P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Art historian Prelinger (Georgetown U.) provides commentary on each of about 50 paintings selected from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection for an exhibition traveling through 2002. Among the artists represented (each with one painting), Marvin Beerbohm, Ralston Crawford, Thomas Hart Benton, William Glackens, Agnes Tait, and O. Louis Guglielmi. The unifying theme is the portrayal of common people and daily life. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)