Someone once asked me why there weren’t more abstract paintings in the Navy Art Collection. We have some abstract paintings in the collection, but 99.99% of the collection is realistic, or representative art.
It’s not that the Navy doesn’t like or doesn’t understand abstract painting. I believe the dearth is related to the internal process of abstract painting and how it contrasts with the Navy Art Collection’s mission.
Abstract painting is internally driven by the emotions, impressions, visions, etc., of the artist. In its strictest form, it has no representational (realistic) elements. In contrast, the Navy Art Collection collects, documents, preserves and exhibits art that is significant to the history of the Navy. The collection exists to remind the Navy and the general public of its past, its present, and to sometimes make speculations into the future (with artist concept images). As art museums go, our mission is more history-depiction oriented than art oriented, but we feel that we’re serving the Navy better in what we do.
It’s not that these two realms can’t co-exist. Today I have two very fine abstract paintings in our collection that demonstrate that Navy art can be abstract art. In looking at them, maybe we’ll learn something about both.
First is the “The Rehabilitation of Destroyer Johnston,” by Marcella Comes Winslow. Its inspiration comes from modernization overhaul U.S.S. Johnston (DD-821) received in 1962 to improve its Cold War-fighting capabilities. For me, the cubism of the painting represents the ship being sectioned, chopped up, rearranged. – effectively describing what was happening to the ship in a visual way. (By the way, the Navy made many lithographs of this painting with the ship’s name misspelled as “Johnson.”)
The other abstract that I love is “The Attack,” by Bernard Childs. It was inspired by the artist’s service on board a destroyer escort in World War II. In his words, “In a torpedo attack, the ship made a fast spin and, at a certain point of its rapid turn, the torpedo was fired at a point in the arc as though whipped from the ship [centrifugally].” The picture captures the motion of the ship’s spin, its wake and the trajectory of the torpedo as it might have been viewed from above.
In both of these we have fine examples of the coincidence of abstract techniques with Navy subjects. There are a few other abstract paintings in the collection, each with its own story.