Art Taking Flight
By Jill Schoeniger
From the blue-skies optimism of the barnstormers to the perils of space flight, “Flying High, Airplanes in Art from the Permanent Collection” showcases nine works chronicling the history of aviation through art. Alumna Makenzie Witter ’15, education and public programs manager at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y, curated the popular show for Albright’s Freedman Gallery before taking it on the road to the Curtis Museum, marking the first time a touring show has been based on an Albright collection.
The show begins with five lithographs from 1979 by Joyce Arons. These pieces harken back to the days of post-World War I when planes were first being used for non-military purposes.
The soft colors of “Dandelions,” depicts a biplane that is representative of a simple time in aviation. Then comes the 1920s, when the energy of barnstorming and its daredevil pilots gripped the nation.
Arons captures that in her pieces “Fly $3” and “Rides” by using extremely bright colors. “It’s almost like a coloring book. They are basic primary colors, and they have a childhood wonder-type feel,” explains Witter.
Arons’ next lithographs reflect a shift in perspective as aviation grows beyond entertainment into more practical uses. “Frame 46” features a crop duster within a filmstrip, while “Ford” has a sepia-type treatment in picturing a Ford Tri-Motor, one of the first passenger planes.
“One thing I tried to emphasize was the idea of the experimentation with the planes and how the planes evolved as technology evolved,” says Witter.
As aviation reached even further with the addition of space travel, many artists also shifted their focus. In Paul Van Hoeydonck’s lithographs that shift is evident. “We have a harsh change, which makes sense because you are going from normal planes to space-age-looking art,” says Witter. “They’re really empty. The colors are bright, but there’s a lost feeling to them.”
With their stark backgrounds and airships, they create “a somewhat unsettling harmony between the past and future,” says Witter.
The final piece, a video by Julia Oldham entitled “Laika’s Lullaby,” serves as the show’s moral conscience and highlights a key shift for Witter. It is the story of the Soviet space dog Laika, who was one of the first animals sent into space. “Her mission was doomed from the start because they never created a way to get her back,” says Witter. “It’s a beautiful yet haunting tale.”
These advancements in aviation came at a price, and Witter feels the sacrifices raise key questions. “You go from the barnstormers who were risking their own lives as they experimented with aviation to the 1950s with space travel where they weren’t willing to sacrifice a human, but they were willing to sacrifice this dog,” says Witter. “There’s a moral dilemma. How far are you willing to go for advancement?”