America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper
Ashmolean Museum, 26th June 2018
Those clever people at the Ashmolean in Oxford have come up with another fine exhibition to rank alongside last year’s survey of Modernism in France Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****). There are plenty of paintings, and photographs, on show here that you would be hard pressed to see without hopping over to the US, as there is b*gger all from this period in public collections here, and the theme, the “cool” in American art in the first half of the C20 is both aesthetically and intellectually interesting. An excellent counterweight to the recent surveys of Abstract Expressionism and American art in the 1930s which came to the Royal Academy as well as the Tate Modern exhibition of Black American art from the 1960s onwards.
There isn’t a great deal of pure abstraction here in contrast to what was going on, in large part, in Europe at the time. Most of the artists on show keep at least one foot, and often more, in the figurative camp. Indeed escaping the influence of those swanky French seems to be part of what many of these artists set out to achieve. There are some early experiments in abstraction in the first room but they are not really up to much. Landscapes and cityscapes predominate. This is not art rich in portraiture: indeed one of the defining features of the survey is the absence of the human figure. The artists here are generally fixated on the rise of modern, urban America: capital accumulation, the factories, the infrastructure, the cities, the technology. Lines are hard, sharp and exact, the natural light is sharp. Twilight and artificial light get a good look in. In the best of the work on there is a weird sense of alienation and stillness. A very detached eye. The rapid social and economic transformation seems to have unsettled some of these artist folk. The rural does get an outing, but this is agriculture as industry, and not the wide, open spaces of American myth. There are a fair few barns.
The paint colours are “cool”, washed out, not vibrant in the way that European art was preoccupied with at that time. Forms are precisely rendered. There is a fair bit of “flatness” on show. The influence of the exact, “abstract” and architectural photography of the likes of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and, a new name for me, Imogen Cunningham is exemplified. There are a lot of buildings.
The core of the exhibition is the “precisionist’ art of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler but the curators have also succeeded in drawing a line back to the more naive, and near abstraction, of Arthur Dove, Helen Torr and early Georgia O’Keefe (Black Abstraction from 1927 is the stand out), which catch the eye in the first room, as well as forward to the uneasy genius of Edward Hopper. The exhibition ends with three blockbusters from said Mr Hopper, which, for me, are the best things here by far, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to this specific thrill.
So what were the biggest surprises beyond those artists I had some familiarity with? The three eerie townscapes from George Ault, New York Night No 2, View From Brooklyn and Hoboken Factory. It seems Ault trained in London, good man, saw three of his four siblings commit suicide, fell out wth his precisionist chums and was an alcoholic. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the twilight world.
His work is certainly a lot darker that Demuth. He is the one who liked text in his paintings of cities, indeed his must famous work is the iconic I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold which title about sums up the subject. Sheeler, who was an amazing draughtsman and nearly as good a photographer as he was painter, is probably the epitome of the “cool” aesthetic that the curators have tried, and succeeded, in showcasing. I was most taken with Demuth’s Welcome to Our City which I assume depicts his native Lancaster, Pennyslvania to whence he returned from New York due to ill health, and away from the circle of artists around Alfred Steiglitz. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (shown above) is almost hyper-real in its detail, barely distinguishable from his photographs of the same subjects on first glance, but as you look more closely a triumph of oil on canvas.
The two paintings from a precisionist follower, Canadian Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, and Smith Silo Exton, take the inspiration of Sheeler’s rural buildings but lend it a more abstracted geometric construction. Great stuff.
There are also a pair of oil paintings from Joseph Stella, Telegraph Poles with Buildings and Metropolitan Port which show his association with the precisionists but also his early exposure to the Italian futurists. The handling of the paint here is a lot freer, there is almost a “smoky” quality, which I was much taken with.
Outside of these paintings I was also drawn to the carefully chosen lithographs on display. Louis Lozowick presents dynamic perspectives in drawings of Minneapolis and New York, there is a superior looking barn from the extravagantly named Benton Murdoch Spruance as well as a couple of fine examples from Sheeler again. Now I am not sure Grant Wood could reasonably be seen as central to the concerns of many of the other artists on show here. A regionalist, focussed on the rural, master of the “American Scene”, I don’t think he was big into for city or industrial subjects. He certainly has the air of detachment that others exhibit here though, albeit with a much heftier dose of irony and/or nostalgia, you are never quite sure. Anyway there are three of his tremendous lithographs in the exhibition, one of haystacks covered in snow, another of MidWest fields, and one of a barn and American Gothic style house. There are Durer-like in their detail and execution.
There is also Martin Lewis’s iconic drawing Which Way? with a car seemingly lost in a snowstorm. Lewis was born in Australia and came to the US to work as a commercial illustrator, a profession that many of the greats of US art in the C20 took up to keep the wolf from the door, and which underpins the American take on modernism when compared to their rather more esoteric European peers. He found great success in drypoints, a technique he mastered on a visit to Japan, but his fame quickly faded. I think I have seen this image before but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I guessed it might have been used in connection with David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre directed by Robert Icke (a qualified success), but that image was actually another drypoint image of a barn in the snow by an artist I can’t identify. It seems that the barn, in whatever weather, is the greatest staple of American art since the founding of the nation. There must be tons of academic papers on this.
Anyway Lewis’s drawing is not a barn but it is a perfectly wrought rendition of artificial light, here the car headlights against the snow, against the dark night. And it is probably a metaphor for the country itself, given this created in 1932, just as the US was emerging from the very worst of the Great Depression.
Now it turns out Lewis was a mate of Ed Hopper. who also has four etchings on show here, all of which show that his mastery of line. shadow and viewpoint wasn’t confined to painting. They would be worth the entry fee alone but, as I said above, there are also three oils to savour, which I think are on show in the UK for the first time. It is hard to believe that his big breakthrough didn’t come until the early 1930’s, and especially after the retrospective at MOMA in 1933, when he was already 50. Prior to that he too had to support himself as an illustrator.
I can’t believe that there is anyone who couldn’t get something valuable out of seeing Hopper’s paintings. The stillness, the light, the murkyish palettes, the shadows, the melancholy, the introversion, the uneasy suggestion. The SO, who doesn’t care for much art, adores his work reproductions of which are plastered on the walls around me as I sit writing this. Mind you, dare I say it, puritanical realism is her bag. Anyway suffice to say we love Hopper.
From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), shows the top floors of a handful of late C19 buildings seen from the eponymous bridge, with a woman perched on the ledge of one open window in the afternoon sun. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), is a view of a train departing, and the buildings opposite, framed by the platform. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) is a wider perspective of the railtrack and a cityscape. All are wonderful.
So soak up what is on offer in this fine exhibition, see if you accept the curator’s argument, I do, and then take as long as you like with this Hoppers. It is worth it.
Many of the works on show are drawn from the Terra Collection for American Art and the Met. So thanks chaps. Just goes to show that there are some things that have come over from the States in recent weeks that aren’t, to borrow the language of astute political commentator Danny Dyer, twattish.