Two new exhibitions at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach — “Going Places: Transportation Designs from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection” and “The Summer of ’68: Photographing the Black Panthers” — are wholly different propositions, though both examine the past through the filter of contemporary sensibilities. “Going Places” is pure nostalgia, a retro fun romp: The show even includes a cover illustration for a 1950 Airplanes, Boats, Trains, Trucks Coloring Book by William F. Timmins. The “Summer of ’68” — drawn from a provocative collection of photographs taken by the husband-and-wife team of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch in Oakland, California — is edgier, politically charged material that still resonates today.
The American love of the internal combustion engine, the sheer gear joy in cool cars, cuts across all class and race lines. “Going Places” — curated by Matthew Bird, a professor of Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design — includes more than 200 objects, from design drawings to advertising posters, newsreels, television ads and movie clips. The exhibition is culled from the collection of Jean and Frederic Sharf, part-time residents of Palm Beach, who have long been fascinated by the history of transportation design and how that artistry quickened the pace — and hearts — of 20th-century Americans.
The technological pleasure of “Going Places” is teased in the lobby of the Norton, with a tiny, three-wheeled 1957 BMW Isetta perched in a corner, the automotive equivalent of a goofy-looking wallflower at a dance. (The Isetta is on loan from Sidney Vallon’s Palm Beach Classics.) The “Going Places” show is contained in one exhibition room, crammed with choice history. In one display case, a 1929 Golden Arrow model car — styled after a race car designed by Captain J.S. Irving for Major Henry Seagrave — resembles a Flash Gordon spaceship. In another display area, a Burlington Zephyr electric train model, made by Western Coil & Electric in the late 1930s, is every dream of the glorious future come true. An adjacent video monitor displays vintage footage of miniature car races, a craze that began in 1939 — the driverless cars were fitted onto rails and raced in circles, reaching speeds of 40 mph.
Aviation demanded a whole new era of design and hope, and “Going Places” includes a Carl Walter poster from the 1923 International Air Races in St. Louis, an image of a workable 1956 Aerocar, and a 1947 design for an enormous commuter helicopter bus that was never built.
One Larry Salk 1961 advertising poster for a private plane, “Executives Disembarking From a Beechcraft Model 33 Debonair,” is Mad Men-revisited in tone. The businessmen departing the plane are sharp and stylish, taking a turbo-glide run into the heart of the American dream, looking more like cast members of Ocean’s Eleven than executives carting briefcases. The modern obsession with the wonders of aviation is also evident in a selection of film clips, with W.C. Fields setting a comic note: In a clip from 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields is seen casually lounging in an open-air airplane lounge, as if he were taking his leisure on a porch, then jumping out of the plane to chase an errant bottle of liquor.
The automobile is the ultimate American passion, and “Going Places” has powerful images of some amazing dream machines, cars that are lodged into the great American brainpan.
Traditionally, concept cars, intended to push against the limits of automobile design, are experimental and not meant for production. One of the first concept cars was created by Harley Earl of General Motors in 1938: the Buick “Y-Job,” which Earl used as everyday transportation, had an eerie unified smoothness that anticipated the modern era. A 1959 William Porter piece Design Proposal: Gullwing on Red GM Sports Car, is also strikingly contemporary, as is Wayne Kady’s 1960 watercolor Concept Gullwing with Stylish Couple. In an un-credited 1962 piece of advertising art, an ineffably stylish playboy-type is posed beside a Jaguar XKE Roadster.
Other images in the “Going Places” exhibition allow museum-goers the chance to make cultural connections and learn a few pop tidbits along the way. Ford’s 1955 Lincoln Futura turned up in Debbie Reynolds’ 1959 movie, It Started With a Kiss, slid out of favor, then became iconic in 1966 as the Batmobile.
“Going Places” is the perfect end-of-summer show, one great song of the open road. After taking in the exhibition, which works on many different levels — from a popular culture fix to a serious sociological study — a segment of Matthew Bird’s curatorial statement seems perfectly apt. “The amount of communicating the objects do, about location, aspiration, technology, who we were, who we thought we could become, is amazing.”
‘The Summer of ’68: Photographing the Black Panthers’
In 2013, the Norton acquired more than 60 photos of the 1960s — taken by Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch — for their permanent collection. The 22 photographs of the Black Panthers currently on view were curated by four summer interns at the Norton, all of whom are female and studying art at universities around the country.
The 22 photos capture the Panthers in posed shaking-America’s-tree confrontations — such as a demonstration at the Alameda County Court House in Oakland, Calif., during Huey Newton’s 1968 trial — and more unguarded, softer moments. At Oakland’s De Fremery Park during a Free Huey rally, a mother and infant — along with an audience that includes sober black businessmen — stare balefully at the speakers on stage. The Black Panthers represented, by and large, a male-centric world, and the Panther men look as if they’d stepped out of a movie casting. Eldridge Cleaver, in his Ray-Bans and black leather jacket, is the essence of 60s revolutionary cool.
In 1968, the Panthers would have been aghast to be immortalized in Palm Beach, one of the more clichéd bastions of white privilege in the 1960s. But now an exhibit of Black Panther photos in Palm Beach is all part of the post-modern cartoon universe that is contemporary life. None of the Panthers, no doubt, could have anticipated an African-American president. But sadly, the turmoil of Ferguson wouldn’t have surprised any of the Black Panthers during the fateful summer of 1968.
If you go
What: ‘Going Places: Transportation Designs from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection’ and ‘The Summer of ’68: Photographing the Black Panthers.’
When: Both exhibitions on view through January 10, 2016.
Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach.
Cost: $5 to $12 (children under 12 free).
Info: Call 561-832-5196 or visit norton.org.