America’s Cool Modernism

Black Abstraction (c) 2017 ARS New YorkBlack Abstraction, 1927, Georgia O’Keeffe, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 102.2 cm, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1969 (69.278.2) © 2017. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2018

The University of Oxford boasts the oldest university museum in the world.  Since 1683 the Ashmolean on Beaumont Street has housed art and archeology collections packed in over four floors.  Greek and Roman heroes strike athletic poses amongst conserved ancient pottery, Egyptian tablets display ornate hieroglyphics, Renaissance artists exhibit their Old-Masterly techniques (Fra Angelico gleams celestially from the sage-green fabric walls), panels of 15th century Islamic and Persian tiles decorate corridors and a monumental cache of exotic and historic curios ensures a veritable trove of cultural delights documenting human evolution across the centuries.

As well as its main anthropological collections, the museum also plays host to regular temporary art exhibitions of a calibre envied by any major international museum. Visitors heading upstairs to the top floor find a permanent space reserved for special exhibitions which has seen the likes of Raphael (including the exquisite ‘Heads of two Apostles and their Hands’ said by some to be the most beautiful drawing in the world), sensational first drawings by Rembrandt, Andy Warhol works from the Hall Collection, Venetian delights by Titian and Canaletto and British drawings by Gainsborough and Turner, Hockney and Gwen John.

Currently, it’s towards America that the museum curators have turned. And it’s a different mood altogether. In collaboration with the Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ‘America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper’ devotes itself to American art of the 1920s and 1930s bringing together some of the greatest works ever made by American artists.  Iconic paintings, photographs and prints capture the cultural shift into modern life and the challenges faced across traditional society revealing a pivotal aspect of American interwar art.  What’s thrilling about this show is just how many lesser-known artists are represented as well as thirty-five paintings never before seen in the UK.

The works are divided across several rooms and a clue to the tone of the exhibition could be guessed from its title.  Though ‘Cool’ it certainly is, it is not in the sense that today’s teen might use the word. Instead, think stark, gritty, uneasy.  The viewer is about to meet the fall-out from the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and America’s Great Depression.

Purple & Green Leaves (c) Estate of Helen Torr, with the permission of John and Diane Rehm.jpgPurple and Green Leaves, 1927, Helen Torr, Oil on copper mounted on board, 51.4 x 38.7 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection (1999.142), By kind permission of Diane Rehm

Entering through the heavy glass doors it isn’t all immediate doom and gloom, though one observation does jump out and which is the conspicuous absence of human form.  But as we begin to realise, that is the point.  Curator Katherine M. Bourguignon of the Terra Foundation explains that “this is the time of the 1930s Depression, of the The Grapes of Wrath, of the breadline, the ‘dustbowl’ where life is harsh and artists are developing an approach to making art that is removed, cool, distant from emotional attachment.  It’s about removing people and removing an emotional reaction to what’s happening around”. (Commentary by exhibition curator Katherine Bourguignon available here)

Works presented in the first room represent the starting point for transforming the world into geometric forms and colour. Compositions are ordered, abstract simplifications of subjects paired down to the essentials, often only parts of a whole.   There are attempts to paint sensory experiences as with Georgia O’Keeffe’s early experimental composition ‘Black Abstraction’ which visualises her experience of losing consciousness under anaesthetic. An enveloping darkness zooms in towards one tiny central point of light, stark and monochrome in comparison with her later floating clouds or abstract botanicals.  It is a new approach to capturing an altering state of the mind.

Edward Estlin Cummings ‘Sound’ uses colour and line to explore the theory of colour-music analogy. And a rare loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC offers flashes of life in Edward Steichen’s ‘Le Tournesol’ (The Sunflower) where linear shapes set the background for a beautifully simple flower of concentric rings in green, yellow and pale pink. So too, Helen Torr’s abstract ‘Purple and Green Leaves’ adds a further geometric flourish of nature’s inspiration.  These paintings affirm how Modernism encompasses everything from flowers to skyscrapers, abstraction and precision, commercial and domestic life, to philosophy and social organisation.

A couple of walls dedicated to Arthur Dove follow.  One of the first American artists to develop a semi-abstract organic imagery, we see natural subjects – mountain and sky, boats and animals – presented as symbolic forms reminiscent of the European Fauves.  Dove’s travels to Paris, Italy and Spain in the early 1900’s had introduced him to a group of experimental artists from the United States and different painting styles bringing a new modernist, artistic identity. Americans were familiar with all the ‘isms’ – Cubism, Futurism, Purism – defining modern art in Europe at that point, here was a chance to take inspiration from that learning, adapt it and proclaim ‘something new and American’.

From my window (c) George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York.jpgFrom my window at the Shelton, West, 1931, Alfred Stieglitz, Gelatin silver print, 23.7 x 19 cm, George Eastman Museum.  Purchase and gift of Georgia O’Keeffe (1974.0052.0073)

Moving on, the atmosphere dims. Grey, angular architecture where urban innovation alters the face of city landscapes pervades the realm, reflecting an industrial sea-change redefining the nation. Artistic experimentation explored what it meant to be American at this time and as many artists contended uneasily with the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of their country by producing work that had a ‘cool, controlled detachment and a smooth, precise finish’, others harnessed a steely optimism as a catalyst for change.

Photographs make up a good part of the show including originals by photographer, gallerist and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Paul Strand.  Considered to be one of the trailblazers of American modern photography who championed modern art, Stieglitz supported numerous avant-garde artists including Dove, Marsden Hartley, O’Keeffe and Steichen whose work exhibited at his ‘291’ gallery in New York.

Figure 5 (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.jpgI saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth, Oil, graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board), 90.2 x 76.2 cm © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.59.1)

One stand-out from the intense grey, architectural forms comes in the shape of Charles Demuth’s pioneering 1928 work ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’.  In one glance, this clean, precisionist dream of a painting conveys exactly what it is about: a big, red fire truck emblazoned with a gold number 5 on the side racing through city streets.  Based on the poem by William Carlos Williams, it’s a fabulous example of an original portrait based on words not appearance and a true crowd-pleaser. “Look at that one!” shouts a young visitor across the room, because which small boy wouldn’t be captivated by a poster of a big, red, shiny fire engine?! A symbolist ‘poster-portrait’, it reflected new advertising styles developing across America in the 1920s and the subsequent Pop Art movement which would follow later in the century.

Americana (c) Estate of Charles Sheeler.jpgAmericana, 1931, Charles Sheeler, Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991 (1992.24.8) © Estate of Charles Sheeler

Evident in Charles Sheeler’s 1931 ‘Americana’ is the connection between old and new worlds.  Sheeler’s interior scene depicts Shaker-style furniture and folk objects composed in semi-abstract arrangements, a yearning nod to past tradition and progressive acknowledgement of modernism.

Leaving Demuth’s “wheels rumbling” through industrial remnants and monochrome cities, agricultural landscapes by Edward Hopper, Ralston Crawford and Grant Wood emerge in the final room.  Outbuildings, grain elevators and agricultural machinery are the main subjects.  Three lithographs by Wood, a key figure of the art movement known as regionalism that flourished in the United States in the 1930s and renowned for his iconic images of the American Midwest depict rural scenes in precise detail.

Hopper’s presence affirms his place as a pivotal figure in capturing the national sentiment at that time. Well-known for his compositions of lonely urban landscapes and scenes of small American towns inhabited by solitary figures, his ‘From Williamsburg Bridge’ from 1928 picks out a single, contemplative individual seated at an open window.  This, and the gentleman walking over ‘Manhattan Bridge Loop’ are the only discrete signs of human life throughout the entire exhibition.

As well as O’Keeffe and Torr, Hungarian artist Jolán Gross-Bettelheim and several other female photographers – Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White – offer their interpretation of the developing American modernist style amongst a somewhat male-dominated milieu. By contemplating the state of the American nation at that time and embracing change, taking what they had learnt from the European avant-garde, together these pioneering American artists have proven how economic adversity gives rise to social and artistic progress and discovery. The Ashmolean show is a pensive, uniquely-engaging presentation of one of the most monumental shifts in cultural evolution.  The rest is history.

Man's Canyon (c) Estate of the artist.jpgMan’s Canyon, 1936, Samuel Margolies, Etching and aquatint on cream laid paper, 40.5 x 32.9 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection (1996.41) © The Artist’s Estate

East River (c) 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.jpgEast River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 81.3 cm, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection,, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1986 (1987.377.3) © 2017. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2018

Illinois Central (c) Estate of the artist.jpgIllinois Central, 1927, George Josimovich, Oil on canvas 104.1 x 118.1 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection (2004.1) © Estate of the artist

Bucks County Barn (c) Estate of Charles Sheeler.jpgBucks County Barn, 1940, Charles Sheeler, Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 72.1 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection (1999.135) © Estate of Charles Sheeler

Buffalo Grain Elevators (c) Ralston Crawford Estate.jpgBuffalo Grain Elevators, 1937, Ralston Crawford, Oil on canvas, 102.1 x 127.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase (1976.133) © The Estate of Ralston Crawford, LLC / VAGA, NY / DACS, London 2018

Manhattan Bridge Loop (c) Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.jpgInsert photo 12, Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928, Edward Hopper, Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 152.4 cm © 2017. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover / Art Resource, NY / Scala, Florence. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Esq., (1932.17)

White Fence (c) Paul Strand Archive - Aperture Foundation.jpgWhite Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916, Paul Strand, Photogravure, printed 1917, 16.5 x 21.5 cm, George Eastman Museum (1969.0119.0004) © Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England
Until 22 July 2018

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