Exhibition Exploring the Guitar’s Place in American Art and Society Features Paintings, Photography, and Seminal Instruments

Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art
May 26–August 13, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn., May 17, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — The Frist Art Museum presents Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art, the first exhibition to explore the instrument’s symbolism in American art from the early nineteenth century to the present. Featuring 125 works of art as well as thirty-five exceptional instruments, Storied Strings will be on view in the Ingram Gallery from May 26 through August 13, 2023.

Organized by Dr. Leo G. Mazow, the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Storied Strings explores fascinating connections and contrasts that show how guitars figure prominently in the visual stories Americans tell about themselves. Works by artists such as John Baldessari, Thomas Hart Benton, Lonnie Holley, Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz and seminal instruments by Fender, Gibson, and C. F. Martin & Company show how guitars have served as symbols of American history, cultural attitudes, identities, and aspirations. For the presentation at the Frist, notable instruments and other artworks drawn from Middle Tennessee collections will be on view, reflecting Nashville’s internationally renowned status as Music City, a mecca for outstanding guitarists and socially impactful music.

Storied Strings is organized thematically into sections including “Blues and Folk;” “A Change is Coming;” “Iconic Women of Early Country Music;” and “The Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll.” Linking these disparate themes is the premise that the malleable image of the guitar has long enabled artists and their human subjects to address a wide range of themes and stories that otherwise would go unexamined.

The exhibition begins with early depictions of people playing guitars at home, showing the cultivated tastes of middle- and upper-class families in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “From the first known American drawing of a guitar—Thomas B. Middleton’s Friends and Amateurs in Musick of 1827—the guitar in the nineteenth century often symbolized gentility, comfort, and easy camaraderie,” writes Mazow.

A selection of classic Martin guitars, showing the importation of guitar-making techniques from Europe to the United States, is included in the following section, “Amateurs and Professionals.” A highlight of this section is Thomas Hicks’s painting The Musicale, Barber Shop, Trenton Falls, New York (1866), a rare depiction of a nonsegregated musical group made just after the Civil War. The sections Hispanicization and Hawaiiana reveal how guitars have been used to portray certain musical styles as “exotic” for white American audiences and romanticize their points of origin.

“Iconic Women of Early Country Music” features photographs of Lulu Belle, Maybelle Carter, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells, as well as associated objects and performance videos. Another section showcases cowboy motifs, with videos of Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and others playing western-tinged country music in early-to-mid 20th century. Highlights of this section include Thomas Hart Benton’s final study for his massive painting The Sources of Country Music, a permanent fixture at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, just down the street from the Frist. This section acknowledges the origins of the cowboy look, as well as showing its expanded legacy in today’s country by LGBTQIA+ musicians such as Orville Peck.

“The guitar’s role in giving voice to people across America is acknowledged in artworks and recordings that show the cultural impact of blues and folk music, born of the injustices, hopes, sorrows, and joys experienced by poor and working-class people, especially people of color and migrant workers,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Over a third of the works in the exhibition are by Black artists or depict Black musicians. An extraordinary example is Romare Bearden’s luminous collage Three Folk Musicians (1967) which shows the merger of two worlds—the European guitar and the African banjo, a synthesis that is still at the core of much Americana music.”

Iconic electric guitars such as a 1953 Fender Telecaster and a 1958 Gibson Explorer—some of which were played by the likes of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton—shine in the section titled “The Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll.” The real star, however, is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock and Roll who influenced Elvis Presley and others in the 1950s; she reigns in a striking quilt by Michael C. Thorpe and a video performance installed nearby.

The final section, “Aestheticizing the Motif,” explores the inherent beauty of guitars in works like John Baldessari’s hand-painted print collages and Kaki King’s video performance of her song “Surface Changes,” which shows an innovative combination of musicianship and visual art for the 21st century.

Exhibition Credit

Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art is organized by Dr. Leo Mazow, curator of American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Supporter Acknowledgment

Platinum Sponsor: HCA Healthcare/TriStar Health

Hospitality Sponsors: The Union Station Nashville Yards and Grand Hyatt Nashville

Spanish Translation Sponsor: Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies at Vanderbilt University

Education and Community Engagement supporter: Windgate Foundation

The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by The Frist Foundation, Metro Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Connect with us @FristArtMuseum #TheFrist

About the Frist Art Museum
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Art Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Art Museum offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. Information on accessibility can be found at FristArtMuseum.org/accessibility. Gallery admission is free for visitors ages 18 and younger and for members, and $15 for adults. For current hours and additional information, visit FristArtMuseum.org or call 615.244.3340. 

SOURCE Frist Art Museum

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