Navigating Art Languages: The James M. Shelton, Jr. Collection on view at El Paso Museum of Art

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Navigating Art Languages: The James M. Shelton, Jr. Collection on view at El Paso Museum of Art
Roy Lichtenstein, Alizarin Brushstroke, 1984. Oil and magna on canvas, 29 7/8 x 36 ¼”. Collection of James M. Shelton, Jr. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

EL PASO, TX.- Important art collections that stand out are uncommon in most major cities around the world, and in El Paso such a collection is rare indeed and definitely the reason for a major celebration. This is the case with The James M. Shelton, Jr. Collection. Gathered gradually over twenty-some years Shelton has focused on late Modernist works and the responses to Modernism often referred to as Post-modernism.

Key to his success is his ability to navigate art languages- identifying which artworks by which artists working in which styles to add to his collection. Navigating art languages is, therefore, aided to some degree by prior study, given that there are so many artists working in such a wide range of styles. However daunting his task as a collector may sound, it is similar to what each artist or viewer of art must do when creating a work of art or visiting an art museum.

This exhibition allows the El Paso Museum of Art to present a portion of the story of American art, as exemplified through the vision of one collector. Divided between three major trends in post-World War II art, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and Minimalism, the Shelton Collection reveals the continuing influence of European art on American artists, but also a debate ongoing since the 19th century about the importance of modernity in art.

Since the mid-19th century American artists have traveled to Europe to complete their art educations. Not until the period following the devastation of two world wars and the immigration of numerous artists from Europe to the United States was the continent’s significance reconsidered in a more global perspective. It was in this transitional time that the work of American artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, now known as Abstract Expressionists, was acknowledged as on par with European art. These artists were initially inspired by European Surrealism and emphasized bold, gestural brushstrokes and pure color over identifiable subject matter.

While Abstract Expressionism moved forward in the 1950s, other European and American artists, later identified as Pop artists, began utilizing imagery from urban popular culture and challenging the viewer to confront the omnipresence of the mass media. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg are three of the Pop artists who created art based on everyday objects of consumerism such as Coke bottles, comic books and clothespins.

In the context of the social upheavals in the 1950s and 60s (i.e. the Vietnam War the Civil Rights movement etc), many American artists questioned longstanding conventions of art. Some of these artists, including Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, and Sol Le Witt, developed work that referenced nothing outside of itself and reduced all elements to their most basic forms. Their work quickly became known as Minimalism, which was the first distinctly American art movement to gain international recognition.

Although numerous other trends and topics in art practice have emerged since the 1970s, the late modern artists included in this exhibition testify to James M. Shelton, Jr’s refined collecting vision, but also to the vibrancy of American art in the last half of the 20th century. The El Paso Museum of Art graciously acknowledges its thankfulness for both.

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