Dr. Leo Mazow’s vision for the new “Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art” exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts stemmed from the overwhelming popularity of (dare it be said?) the world’s favorite instrument.
“Guitars are ubiquitous,” Mazow said. “They’re cool and fun, so they’ve always been a natural choice for artists to include in their work. Art exhibitions should be immersive and engaging. The guitar allows for that.”
Though his formal title is Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, Mazow humbly boils it down to “teacher of American art,” and says work started on the exhibit about four years ago. Having organized the 2005-’06 exhibition “Picturing the Banjo” at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University (and which traveled to the Corcoran Gallery and Boston Athenaum), he brought a deep interest in the ways art and music intersect.
For “Storied Strings,” which explores the guitar’s symbolism in American art from the early 19th century to the present day, he and the VMFA staff gathered about 130 paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs, and sculptures by American artists such as John Baldessari, Romare Bearden, Annie Leibovitz, Ruth Reeves, and Julian Alden Weir, along with 35 guitars made by Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, and Martin, including some that have been played by musicians such as Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Les Paul, and others.
Other elements include audio-visual kiosks showing music and filmed performances, as well as a window overlooking a recording studio where visitors can view in-progress sessions. Musicians confirmed to appear include Tommy Emmanuel, Nels Cline, Yasmin Williams, Stephen McCarthy, and Corey Harris.
Mazow offered VG a glimpse to several exhibit pieces and discussed his thoughts behind its creation. “Storied Strings” runs through March 19, 2023.
What were the key steps in bringing together the many elements of the exhibit?
I mostly found images in museum databases and by scouring the internet, and I had to consider, “What are the main themes?” In American art – as in music itself – the guitar is like a microphone that everyone passes around. At the basic-repertoire level, it’s easy to learn. And because most people understand its visual appeal, guitars appear a lot in art.
I became particularly curious about how guitars figure prominently in pictures dealing with politics, gender, Black art and culture, and with images exploring financial themes. There are themes and stories directly or indirectly apparent in the works. The premise is that the guitar provides a way to tell stories, and to address themes and issues that otherwise might go under-told or not addressed whatsoever.
What are some examples?
One of the first drawings of a guitar in American art is now owned by the Gibbs Museum, in South Carolina; it’s a party and everyone’s drinking and carousing. The guy next to the guitar player is playing the case as if it’s a cello. So, there’s something to the manner in which guitar playing in art and everyday life facilitates “socializing,” for lack of a better word.
Another work that had been on my radar was by Thomas Hart Benton, the most-famous American artist in the 1930s and ’40s. We have a picture he painted of his daughter playing guitar on her 18th birthday. And of course you don’t hear a painting, but there are things you can do in a painting to suggest the sonic realm, to suggest sound. Benton did that by showing her playing a variation on an F# chord, and it’s really great.
There are photographs of celebrities, too, like Kitty Wells and Lulu Belle, two early women in country music. We have photographs of Prince, Nels Cline, and other important players past and present.
What were the criteria for guitars you wanted for the exhibit?
I was interested in guitars that, like paintings, no matter how beautiful and stunning they are aesthetically, offer a glimpse into cultural history. For example, there’s a Gibson Explorer played by Eric Clapton that ties into how the original Explorers were called Futuras, and I wanted to show how that rhymes with Cold War-era space-age aesthetics.
There’s also Eldon Shamblin’s Strat, which Leo Fender gave him; it is known to be the first painted Strat – they used gold automotive paint, so it’s like a sculpture in a metal medium, and parts of it have rusted so it’s gold with green in a few places. And speaking of space-age and glam aesthetics, we have Brian Setzer’s sparkly Gretsch Silver Jet, which really calls your attention from across the room. There’s also a pair of Fender paisley-finish instruments from 1968 – the Tele and Tele Bass – that speak to the vogue for paisley and other psychedelic designs in American art and fashion.
Which collectors helped the cause?
There were several. One of the people we reached out to was Paul Polycarpou, a collector and former musician who set up meetings with several other collectors including Eliot Michael, at Rumbleseat Music, and Joe Glaser. Those guys are complete mensches, and they put me in touch with others. We borrowed some great Martins and other instruments from George Gruhn and Walter Carter, who, along with Jerry Zolten, Bruce Roth, and Tom Wentzel, of Vintage Blues Guitars, were very helpful. There were others who are equally generous. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston lent important instruments.
Is there significance in the way certain guitars are displayed?
Even though the exhibit is about guitar symbolism in American art, we have a small section dealing with Martins and their legacy, because Martin set the tone for guitar design and aesthetics, and these instruments contextualize paintings in which similar guitars appear. We all know about the X bracing used by Martin, but the curve of the violin-scroll headstock and their rosette, purfling, and mustache bridge are remarkable, too.
Guitar players and builders often talk about the guitar as multifaceted art because of the sounds it makes, the way it’s made, and the way it looks.
Yeah, and we have an example in a Tilton guitar that banjo collector Jim Bollman sold to the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. It was made by the Haynes Company, with so much mother-of-pearl and abalone; it’s a presentation-grade instrument that would hang in a parlor or den, but of course it wasn’t made to sound great. Billy Gibbons visited the museum and told us he had played a similar guitar at Walter Carter’s. I asked, “How did it sound?” and he said, “Eh… about what you’d expect.” It’s not a high-end guitar for playing, but it’s pure eye candy from the 1880s, and mirrors literary conceptions of gilded-age wealth.
A very cool part of the exhibit is the recording studio, and some heavy hitter players are showing up for sessions.
Yes, it’s a fully functioning studio. We’re asking musicians to think about how the guitar can be an expressive “narrating” device – something to communicate with. So, in addition to having them play, we’ll ask them how their guitar serves as a communication tool, an expressive device. Is it that for them? What does it mean to them?
People who happen to be at the exhibit those days will be able to watch?
Yes, there are windows to the studio, and speakers built into the walls, so people can hear it all. And the recordings will be made available through the VMFA’s Youtube channel (search for “Richmond Sessions ’22-’23”), which is linked from the museum’s website.
This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.