Object of the Week: Buffalo Dance, by Elsie Driggs

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Born into a family that valued fine art—her mother made many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art while pregnant in the hopes that she would give birth to an artist—Elsie Driggs began her art education early, taking several painting classes as a child and teenager. She enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City in 1918, where she studied under modernists John Sloan, George Luks, Robert Henri, and Maurice Sterne for several years. This experience, as well as a period of study in Italy, informed her artistic style, which she continued to develop and refine over the course of a seventy-year career.

Driggs is best remembered for her contributions to Precisionism, a style of painting developed in the 1920s that celebrated the structures of modern America, such as factory buildings, skyscrapers, and bridges. Precisionists reduced their compositions to sharp geometric shapes with little surface detail and clear outlining of forms. Driggs explored this style throughout the 1920s, and in 1927 she completed her most celebrated work, Pittsburgh, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Although she found critical success with Precisionism, playfully painted watercolors similar to Buffalo Dance make up a large body of Driggs’s work. She began painting watercolors that mixed abstract and semi-representational forms upon her return from Italy in 1924, and these works share qualities with her Precisionist paintings from the same decade. The watercolors often feature overlapping figures painted with washes of color tumbling together around a central axis. Outlining, what Driggs referred to as her “wandering line,” plays an important role in delineating between shapes and forms. This is particularly apparent in Buffalo Dance, which features four buffalo hunted by a man on horseback. Despite the potentially violent nature of the hunt, the thinly drawn outlines sweep across the composition, giving the creatures the appearance of engaging in a dance.

Buffalo Dance is currently on view in Ripple Effect: Altering the Face of Nature, the first exhibition curated by the Everson Teen Arts Council. Made up of twenty teens from fourteen Onondaga County schools, the Teen Arts Council provides high school students with the opportunity to work directly with museum professionals and learn about potential career paths in the museum field. Through meetings with the Everson’s curatorial and exhibitions team, Council members learned the intricacies of building a museum exhibition and carefully developed an exhibition theme, selected works from the collection, wrote all didactic text, and designed the layout for this exhibition.