Stepping through the double doors of the Lisanby Museum, viewers take a step back in time with its newest exhibit, “Rocket Age: The American Spirit in Art, 1950-1980.” One can experience bright and colorful “Flowers” by Andy Warhol or an emotional photograph of Jackie Kennedy standing at former president John. F. Kennedy’s funeral by Elliott Erwitt.
Now open, “Rocket Age” is a collection of pieces from the Madison Art Collection, JMU’s permanent art collection, that have been donated as teaching tools. It’s organized by decade and contains 14 pieces by 12 different artists. Visitors will find drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures and ceramics throughout the exhibit that represent change beginning in 1950 and ending in the late ’80s.
“This is the second part of our connection to ‘American Evolution 2019,’ which is a statewide initiative that commemorates a number of events in Virginia history that really helped shape modern American culture,” Virginia Soenksen, associate director of the Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum, said.
When choosing a name for an exhibit, Soenksen says she thought about the message it should send to visitors because the title is most likely what grabs someone’s attention. The goal of this title is to summarize the tone of the post-World War II period.
“It’s very much about rocketing into new and uncharted territory both socially, politically and artistically,” Soenksen said. “All of the artists in the exhibition are responding to these changes that are going on in the post-war period but they’re also trying to enact change within the art field and push boundaries. I liked that message of kind of propelling into the future.”
Some of the artists shown in “Rocket Age” are Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Japanese artist Toshiko Takaezu. One of Soenksen’s favorite pieces is called “Artists Rights Today” by Rauschenberg. He created the piece to show support for a law put forth in Congress in which artists would make money back from their resold work.
“He sold a number of his works when he was a young, starving artist and then when he took off and became a household name, people started re-selling his works for thousands of dollars more,” Soenksen said. “He felt that the money from those resales should go back to the artist. So, this piece was him being artistically and politically active.”
“Rocket Age” is the second exhibit Soenksen has curated at JMU, following last semester’s “Breaking Chains: Voices from Slavery to Civil Rights.” She says that while “Breaking Chains” was a 400th anniversary tribute to the first African-Americans arriving to English North America, “Rocket Age” looks broadly at the way artists helped shape modern American culture during the post-war period.
“I think it’s a major point of transition within American art history and I think we’re actually kind of going through another one of those right now,” Maddy Stratten, a sophomore anthropology major and intern at the museum, said. “I think it’s really nice to just see the history laid out chronologically and how artists interpreted the time that they were living in.”
Stratten is one of multiple student interns who work at the museum for class credit. Their duties for opening this exhibit included hanging artwork and informational cards about each piece and adjusting the lighting in the room so the art doesn’t produce a glare.
“If more people knew it was here, I think they would definitely find this interesting,” Lauren Oakes, a senior history and Spanish double major and intern at the museum, said. “You don’t have to have a background in art to look at it.”
Soenksen will host a curator’s tour on Jan. 24 at 3 p.m., and the exhibit will remain open to the public until April 19. Once a month throughout the semester, the museum will hold “Coffee and Conversation” where professors discuss certain pieces.
“I think one of the biggest takeaways is that change is constant and there is always something that is there to fight for,” Soenksen said. “I think that we live in a time where people are looking for optimism and I think seeing how far we’ve come can really help support that optimism as we enter into 2019.”
Contact Traci Rasdorf at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.