The show is unabashedly American in subject matter and form: Realism is as much an influence as Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and the other European –isms.
American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell at the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, through September 13
By Kathleen C. Stone
The thing that struck me about the show at the Shelburne Museum is how American it is. Of course, the exhibition’s title guarantees that the work on view was American made. But still, I expected to see more evidence of European-derived style and technique. American artists found inspiration in Europe — particularly in the art of the avant-garde — even as the center of the art world began to shift from Paris to New York. But on this side of the Atlantic, between the years covered in this show, the European avant-garde turned out to have been no more than a ripple from a distant shore, washing over these paintings and sculptures without disturbing their essence. The show is unabashedly American in subject matter and form, and Realism is as much an influence as Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and the other European –isms.
The show opens with a wall of paintings that celebrate the big, the tall, and the industrial. Skyscrapers, cargo ships, automobiles, and apartment buildings are rendered in large blocks of bold color. They radiate the positive energy of the early twentieth century, when the U.S. population catapulted to more than one hundred million, the fifteen-millionth Model T rolled out of a Ford plant, and women won the right to vote. Despite America’s mania for success, one of the show’s strengths is that it gives us a look at homegrown artists who are not well known. The opening section features the works of Francis Criss, George Copeland Ault, Glenn O. Coleman, and Isabel Lydia Whitney, and suggests that these artists deserve as much critical attention as their better known contemporaries. And there are plenty of well-known names in the show as well: Milton Avery, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Max Weber, and Marguerite Zorach.
While many artists were celebrating the country’s growth and industrialization, others were exploring the social dislocation that accompanied it. Raphael Soyer’s portrait of a lone woman at a café table captures the sense of isolation some artists detected in their fellow Americans. Well-dressed with a hat, the woman looks blankly into space, as though tired after a long day of clerical work, the cigarettes and glass on the table her only solace. She is reminiscent of European café sitters, particularly some of Picasso’s, but Soyer works in a more realistic manner and he shows the influence of Manet, rather than Picasso, in his use of color blocks and flatness.
American art includes a distinguished history of landscape painting, and even in the modern period artists embraced rural settings for their work, but these are no Hudson River School paintings. In the twentieth century it was no longer enough to show an enticing water scene or a lovely stretch of land; the salient feature here is depicting human endeavor in the midst of rural location. Luigi Lucioni’s “A Barre Granite Shed” shows the low-slung black building and tall smoke stacks of a granite cutting operation against the green trees and hills of Vermont. “The Sand Cart” by George Wesley Bellows takes us to the Pacific coast, where rocky hills and bright turquoise water frame a scene of men loading sand into a cart to be driven to a concrete factory. They work among dories and fish debris, telltale signs that this location serves double duty, as fishing ground and sand reservoir, in the exploitation of America’s natural resources.
Other artists took landscape painting in the direction of abstraction. Milton Avery’s “Sunset,” for instance, is a wash of pink and orange spilling over black. It is not entirely abstract – the water and rock are easy enough to make out – but they are reduced to their essential form and color and situated on a flat picture plane. Georgia O’Keefe goes even further toward abstraction when she traces a sinuous line through a yellow background in “Green, Yellow and Orange.” Even here, though, in what seems to be pure shape and color, the piece is inherently linked to modern technology; this is the road O’Keefe saw when she flew over the New Mexico desert in an airplane. Two other O’Keefes are included in the show and they, like the landscape, are blessedly different from the flowers, clouds, and antlers that have come to define her work in the popular mind.
For all their American-ness, the paintings in the show are modern, and being contemporary in the early twentieth-century art meant that the art would draw on the avant-garde vision that originated in Europe. In “Memories of My California Childhood,” for instance, Marguerite Zorach combines the two approaches. She fractures the family portrait into geometric elements – she did, after all, study in Paris at the same time that Picasso and Braque were developing their cubist ideas – but the colors are resolutely her own, the greens and russets evoking northern California where she grew up. In his canvases, Max Weber gives us faces broken apart and limbs disembodied. And Albert Gallatin subjects a musical instrument to both cubism and abstraction, isolating geometric forms and rendering them flat in bold color.
Two still life pictures, which hang side by side in Shelburne, illustrate the various approaches available to modern painters. Marsden Hartley’s “Summer Clouds and Flower” is reminiscent of Matisse, with its boldly colored pitcher of flowers in front of an ocean scene. The canvas shows the blue water, a sailing schooner, and white clouds, and through its use of color and perspective brings those background elements forward so they take on as much importance as the flowers in the foreground. In a different approach to still life, Robert Hallowell concentrates on six poppies in a vase against a white drapery background. If this sounds like a nineteenth century academic study, it’s not. He renders the dark shadows and folds of the drapery with bold brush strokes — his poppies are nearly alive, twisting and turning inside the vase.
Two curatorial decisions should be noted. The organizers of the show, situated at the the Brooklyn Museum, included a number of pieces by artists such as Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, and N.C. Wyeth – this section is labeled “Americana.” (The Rockwell picture is set in a tattoo parlor; one has to wonder if this was included because of tattoos’ popularity today.) These pieces strike a jarringly different note from the rest of the exhibit, and the show would have been just as strong without them. Another decision was to omit many notable American artists who were active in the years from 1910 to 1960. Without de Kooning, Hoffman, Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, Krasner and others, it is almost as though pure abstraction and abstract expressionism did not exist. But the decision not to include such high profile work has its value: it lets us linger more fully on the landscapes, figures, and still lives that fit into the period, when the native sensibilities of American artists drew on what they wanted from the avant-garde.
One piece on which I lingered was a small sculpture by Mahonri M. Young, “Right to the Jaw.” The 1920s marked a high point in America’s love affair with boxing, and this sculpture, from 1926, beautifully captures that mass romance. An adherent of the Ash Can School’s belief that art should show the gritty side of life, Young captures the moment when one boxer’s right glove strikes his opponent’s left jaw. But he does more than that. He toys with the men’s figures, making them thin and elongated. He fixes their stances in bronze, but at the same time shows them as active, like dancers’, as they swing and receive the punch. We feel the force but also the grace of the men in the ring.
Kathleen C. Stone is a writer pursuing her MFA degree, a lawyer who earned her JD many years ago, and, even before that, was a student of art history. Her blog can be found here.