Mar 28

Abstract Navy Art

Sunday, March 28, 2010 12:01 AM


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 Rehabilitation of Destroyer Johnston by Marcella Comes Winslow Oil on canvas, 1962 88-163-F.

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.

The Attack by Bernard Childs. Wax and pigment on canvas, 1959 98-381-A.

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.

  • George Nugent

    I served on the Johnston from July ’50 until August ’51, at which time I was transferred to a Fletcher-class DD being reactivated for the Korean War. The Johnston was a great ship, but I must say I probably would not have recognized her after her “modernization” either in real life or in the artwork. But I do enjoy Ms. Winslow’s painting anyway.
    This also brings to mind the ship’s namesake, the first Johnston DD 557, which was lost in the Battle off Samar in October of 1944.

  • Judith Childs

    What a surprise and pleasure to see your well written March 28,2010 article about abstract Navy Art when it popped up on my computer screen along with an image of my husband’s painting “The Attack”. During his two years aboard the USS Wesson, Bernard drew his shipmates and even “Duffey’s Tavern” on a tiny Pacific atoll where 24 men at a time took turns rowing ashore in a lifeboat(with a keg of beer)for the briefest of shore leaves. Thanks to two shipmates, the late Adie Marks who sent me the shore leave drawing and Paul Long who preserved a number of the other drawings,there is now another public record for the USS Wesson. Paul, who is living in Oregon, gave his collection to his daughter Adele Hogan. She contacted me and between the two of us we were able to give all the drawings to the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Sincerely, Judith Childs

  • the navy hired me as an abstract navy painter because they did not have enough abstract art. best job i ever had.