If you’re curious, after a while you’re likely to run across something about a group of defiantly modern artists called the Knoxville Seven. You might see a surprising abstract here or there, in a gallery or a friend’s house.
For the first time in about half a century, you can see their work at once, in context. The Knoxville Seven is the subject of the Knoxville Museum of Art’s latest show.
The reference may call for some justification. They didn’t shamelessly crib the name of the alleged riot provokers known as the Chicago Seven. The Knoxville Seven were first. Nor are they a subdivision of the Knoxville 22, the counterculture demonstrators arrested on UT’s campus in early 1970—although I gather it’s safe to say that some of the Knoxville Seven sympathized.
Kermit “Buck” Ewing came to UT in 1948 and founded the university’s art department. UT had been a practical college for most of its history, but in the 1930s and ’40s, the college tripled in size, and liberalized—considering heretofore unprofitable studies like drama, music, and art. Originally from Pittsburgh, Ewing was a charismatic force of nature and a local champion of modern art.
By 1959, art was changing in controversial ways, and Ewing prodded Knoxville’s artists forth into the fray. He cobbled together a group of talented artists with an interest in the modern.
Five of the Seven, including Ewing, Philip Nichols, Carl Sublett, Walter Stevens, and Richard Clarke, were UT faculty members. Joanna Higgs Ross, a Middle Tennessean who was attracted to the Smokies as a subject, lived in Knoxville for only a few years.
The most Knoxvillian of the Seven is still a Knoxvillian today, and attended the opening of this show. Robert Birdwell was a professional artist who was attracted to urban scenes and architecture of downtown Knoxville, where he once kept his studio. Now in his early 90s, Birdwell cuts a striking figure in a black beret,
In 1963, at their height, the Seven threw a landmark party at UT’s then-new McClung Museum, then one of Knoxville’s most modernist buildings. Their April 1963, show shocked some viewers, as was their intention. This winter’s show is their first retrospective. Included are several paintings from that one, as well as some interesting pictures and reactions from the time.
Every visitor will view it differently. It’s a reflection of the time, of an era when affluent Americans kept up with the latest trends in modern art, the time just after Pollack and just before Warhol. These artists were influenced by the contemporary masters of abstract expressionism and Pop Art, a term and concept that soared in popularity in the early 1960s. They aspired to match the best of their era, and not just locally: “Seven Knoxville Artists of America,” as their McClung Museum exhibit was billed.
But this KMA show is more particularly a rare window on Knoxville during a time when the city was urgently, fiercely, self-consciously, nervously, desperately trying to reinvent itself, and to become Modern. In 1947, we’d been called, credibly, the ugliest city in America. In the 1950s, the city suffered its steepest population decline.
And it was the era of urban renewal. You could argue that the sweep of urban renewal was modernism writ large. It took a cluttered, intricate, old-fashioned, decorative landscape and powerwashed it, leaving us an almost-blank canvas to ponder.
Maybe it’s forgivable to take special interest in the Knoxville scenes of Ewing, Sublett, and Birdwell. Sublett painted bridges over the river. Birdwell created some pretty fascinating views of Gay Street, one much more abstract than the other. One of the oldest in the show is Ewing’s affecting portrayal of an eccentric downtown newspaper vendor in 1949.
I was surprised as the title of a rectangular Ewing semi-abstract oil, called “George’s-Rich’s from Broadway.” I’d heard of George’s, the old-line Knoxville department store that was on Gay Street. Older folks remember it. And I’d heard of Rich’s, the trendy, upscale Atlanta-based department store that built a modernist palace in downtown Knoxville, between Henley and Locust Streets. I had to go to the library files to see what Ewing meant by “Georges’s-Rich’s,” that uneuphonious pairing of the two possessive proper nouns. George’s and Rich’s merged in 1954. By the time they opened the big new Knoxville store in August, 1955, the result was known only as Rich’s. It was known as George’s-Rich’s for only a few months during the construction of the Henley Street store. Ewing’s painting likely depicts that moment.
It was the most dramatic architectural opening in Knoxville history. Rich’s promised “suburbia brought downtown.” Designed by Stevens & Wilkinson of Atlanta, with local assist from Barber McMurry, it would include “parks” on both sides, designed by Garrett Eckbo of Los Angeles, one of America’s foremost landscape designers of the 1950s. The interior would be done by the industrial designers Raymond Loewy and William Snaith, of New York, famous for automotive designs.
It was to be “ultramodern,” the “Store of Tomorrow.” It had glass stairwells and an undulating white marquee. It won a national architecture award and was written up in the New York press as “eye-popping.”
The ribbons across its entrances couldn’t be merely snipped. That was old-school.
Mayor George Dempster, inventor of the Dumpster, had been born in 1887, when electric lighting was new. But he was the one who pushed the button that activated a little gift from Oak Ridge, a capsule of Iodine 131. The atomic charge sent a white cloud into the air, and it drifted over 5,000 cheering civilians. It was not, as far as I can tell, a mushroom cloud. It effectively severed one of the ribbons, but had trouble with the other.
Rich’s was not “ultramodern” in one respect. Its fabulous dining facilities were racially segregated. The building, renowned in 1955 for its architecture, may be most famous to history as the backdrop for photographs of civil-rights picket lines in 1960. It closed in 1961 and became downtown’s second Miller’s. Now, of course, it’s UT’s Conference Center.
See the show at the KMA, and let me know what you think.