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George Deem: The Art of Art History

April 11 - August 31, 2012


"...a unique relationship to and vision of the masterpieces of the past." 

George Deem, Everybody’s Schoolroom, 1994. Oil on canvas, 34 x 46 in. (86.4 x 116.8 cm). Collection of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP, New York


George Deem (1932–2008) had a unique vision of the masterpieces of the past and a passion for the history of art in general. This combination inspired him to create paintings that are both visions and revisions. This exhibition focuses on that part of Deem’s oeuvre for which he found specific inspiration in two favorite sources: paintings by the seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer and those by American artists such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. In his analysis and interpretation of these artists’ works, Deem made his own, important contribution to the history of art.

Deem was born in southern Indiana, studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then moved to New York City where he lived most of his adult life. He traveled extensively in the United States and Europe and spent several formative years in Italy. In the 1960s, motifs from paintings by earlier artists began to appear in Deem’s work with some frequency. Initially, Deem borrowed elements from the works of several different artists to construct a single new painting of his own; but he soon began to focus on specific artists, one at a time, or groups of artists who were members of the same “school” of art. Elements from paintings by Gilbert Stuart, George Caleb Bingham, Homer, Sargent, and the members of the Ashcan School, for example, were studied, appropriated, and re-imagined.

At the same time, Deem gave full rein to his love of Vermeer. He expressed this in paintings in which he juxtaposed, combined, or reinterpreted Vermeer’s works, either in part or in whole. It is for his variations on themes by Vermeer that he is best known.

By the 1970s, Deem’s work was attracting the attention of prominent critics and art historians such as Arthur Danto and Robert Rosenblum. Over the next several decades, these and other writers stated their admiration for Deem’s theatricality and sense of play and praised him for having rejected satire and caustic wit in favor of “the winsome and gracious.” Deem was classified variously as a Pop artist, a Figurative Realist, a Deconstructionist, a Proto-Post Modernist, a Post-Modernist, and a Post-Post-Modernist. With work that defies reduction to a single, simply defined topical or stylistic category, George Deem created something new and, to borrow composer Stephen Sondheim’s phrase, “gave us more to see.”

David B. Dearinger
Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture