New Smithsonian Show Mines the Rich History of Cat Art—Before the Meme

Want to guarantee yourself some social media love? An adorable cat video is sure to do the trick. But long before computers, cats were a fruitful source of inspiration to artists of all stripes. The Smithsonian Institute‘s Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, draws on that rich feline art history for “Before Internet Cats,” opening April 28.

The exhibition showcases 60 works featuring cats, both written and visual, from the archives’ collection. There are sketches and drawings in a variety of different mediums, as well as letters, journals, and photographs from the 19th century through the 1980s, all predating cat memes by decades.

Featured artists/cat lovers in the show are Gertrude Abercrombie, Jay DeFeo, Mark Green, Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Naul Ojeda, Miné Okubo, Kay Sage, Frank Stella, Hedda Sterne, Lenore Tawney, and Beatrice Wood.

Treasures on view include “cat correspondence,” like this letter from Green to DeFeo: “People are my serious photography; cats are my relaxation.” There are also rare bits of ephemera, like the exhibition announcement for Dorr Bothwell’s 1977 show “All Kinds of Cats,” featuring an expressive line draw of a cat grooming itself.

Dorr Bothwell, exhibition announcement for "All Kinds of Cats" at Zacha's Bay Window Gallery in Mendocino, California (1977). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Dorr Bothwell, exhibition announcement for “All Kinds of Cats” at Zacha’s Bay Window Gallery in Mendocino, California (1977). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

According to the Archives, which are home to more than 20 million objects documenting the history of visual arts in the US, “cats are certainly among the more adorable findings in our collections.”

In bringing together this exhibition, they’ve attempted to address all aspects of the sometimes contrarian creatures, who can be both aloof and affectionate, friend and foe. Throughout the show, cats “are seen in numerous guises: playful subjects, humorous topics of conversation, independent studio companions, and beloved members of the family.”

See more images from the exhibition below.

Miné Okubo, <em>painting of a cat</em> (1972). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Miné Okubo, painting of a cat (1972). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles E. Buckley, birthday card for March Lion Lindsay-McCausland, March 24, 1950. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles E. Buckley, birthday card for March Lion Lindsay-McCausland, March 24, 1950. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Emily Barto at work on her mural, <em>Animal Tales</em>, at the Fordham Hospital in New York City, October 6, 1937. Photograph by Andrew Herman. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Emily Barto at work on her mural, Animal Tales, at the Fordham Hospital in New York City, October 6, 1937. Photograph by Andrew Herman. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles Green Shaw, drawing of a cat and three mice. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles Green Shaw, drawing of a cat and three mice. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Jay DeFeo’s cat, Pooh, in her studio, between 1960 and 1965. Photograph by Jay DeFeo. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Beatrice Wood, <em>self-portrait with a cat</em> (1991). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Beatrice Wood, self-portrait with a cat (1991). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Archive of American Art’s “Before Internet Cats” is on view at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, DC, April 28–October 29, 2017.

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