A lot of art exhibits get their impact from various individual works strung out on the walls like islands.
But in "50 Great American Artists," which opened at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center last week, the walls themselves beg to be heard. And that's because so many of the paintings, prints and drawings hung there by Pfac curator Michael Preble for the center's concluding 50th anniversary show seem to be having such rich and rewarding conversations.
Just look at what happens on the north wall of the Ferguson Gallery, where a notable 1946 painting by the great American realist Norman Rockwell is not only surprisingly painterly and impressively detailed all by itself but also sets up some compelling insights into its nearest neighbors.
Few people today may have heard of Robert Riggs, for example. But his potent 1938 depiction of the famous Joe Louis-Max Schmelling heavyweight boxing championship fight is so masterful you can see right away why he not only competed with Rockwell for magazine covers but also was favorably compared to the great Ashcan School painter (and fellow boxing afficionado) George Bellows.
Then there's Paul Cadmus' voluptuously imagined gaggle of sailors cavorting with street girls in a saucy 1934 oil called "The Fleet's In." It shows such virtuoso command of anatomy, composition and paint that — despite its one-time reputation as an emblem of scandal and sin — it easily stands alongside both the Rockwell and Riggs as a prime example of figurative verisimilitude, a Renaissance brush and exuberant neoclassical composition.
"What we tried to do was make sure everybody had a neighbor — everybody had a friend," Preble says, describing the relationships among his selections.
"That makes these works even more interesting than they are by themselves."
Made up of objects drawn largely from small museums, galleries and private collectors — plus some critical loans from the Smithsonian, the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — "50 Great Americans" outperforms many similar shows that boast bigger and better known sources.
Among the many outstanding images on view here are Riggs' in-your-face boxing match, a monumental painting by Richmond-born New Realist pioneer Jack Beal and a superb amusement park scene by Reginald Marsh — all of which were lent by institutions that local museumgoers may never or only rarely have heard of.
"This was a deliberate choice," Preble says, describing the story behind his efforts to put the show together.
"We're a little guy, too, and I wanted to do an exhibit that showed how little guys can do some really interesting things when they work together."
Complementing these stand-out images are many works of unexpected interest, including a superb etching by the great 20th-century artist Edward Hopper and a revealing study by Regionalist giant Thomas Hart Benton.
The first shows a landmark figure's often overlooked mastery of an allied medium, while the second offers a dramatic record of the refinements and corrections Benton made in the course of creating a major painting.
Lined up in a wall-long collection of similarly modest but engaging works by such figures as Charles Burchfield, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Demuth, Bellows and Rockwell Kent, they also help provide a surprisingly rich and compelling introduction to the landscape of American art during the years between 1910 and the outbreak of World War II.
"We're trying to give you a little bio, a little back story and a little explanation that gives you a way into each work," Preble says, describing the revealing text that accompanies each image.
"So if you're not familiar with some of these artists to begin with, you will be by the time you're done."
Similarly impressive strings of works can be found exploring such fertile periods as the late 1800s and early 1900s — when the formidable Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and James McNeil Whistler reigned — and the late-20th-century heyday of such innovators as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Jim Dine.
"It will be very easy for me to live with this show for 3 months," Preble says.
Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/depentertainment
Want to go?
"50 Great American Artists"
Where: Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Drive, Newport News
When: Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 13
Cost: $7.50 adults, $4 children 6-12 (valid for one week)
Info: 757-596-8175; http://www.pfac-va.org
Online: Go to dailypress.com/americanartists to see a gallery of works from the show."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times