Arts » Visual Arts

The Artwork of James Spencer Russell



Indiana-born artist James Spencer Russell made his name in New York City during the flowering of the pop art movement. But while he was a known quantity through the '60s and '70s, by the time of his death in 2000 the art world had almost forgotten about him.

The Indiana State Museum's lifespan-encompassing retrospective of Russell's artwork, curated by the museum's Mark Ruschman, just might rectify this situation.

Like a number of artists associated with pop art - including fellow Hoosier Robert Indiana, who also made his home in New York City in the '60s and '70s - Russell used found objects in his art. Around the time of the Museum of Modern Art's 1961 exhibition "The Art of Assemblage" - and in the wake of it - many New York artists were using found objects in their constructions.

One thing that's particularly interesting about some exhibited pieces is how Russell married the bold colors of the pop art movement with the 3D aspects of his wall-hanging constructions. Take his late-60s-era mixed media work "Malcolm X Icon." The central image of Malcolm X is portrayed as in a postage stamp - highlighted by bright strokes of paint and cut color prints - over raised letters wood letters spelling out the words FREEDOM, JUSTICE, and EQUALITY. Considering that the U.S. Postal Service would eventually release a postage stamp depicting Malcolm X, in 1999, the prescience of this work is striking.

The exhibition does an excellent job of couching such work in the context of his life and his development as an artist, including his stint as a theater and TV studio set designer. We learn about his trip to Europe in 1957, documented by a series of watercolors. Also included is wall text describing Russell's literary interest in James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake - often described as one of the most difficult novels ever written - and examples of wall-hanging mixed media work deriving from that interest.

Unlike Robert Indiana, Russell came back home again. After his mother's death he moved into her house in Kewanna, Ind., a small town in the northern part of the state. The last 25 years of his life were productive ones. You can see in this exhibition numerous examples of his continuing work in mixed media constructions from that period, works often influenced by his love of jazz. But there are also watercolors depicting Kewanna townscapes, signaling an attachment to all things Hoosier.

And somehow the stars have aligned so that Russell has his work exhibited at the same time as "The Essential Robert Indiana" at the IMA.


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