7 November 2018 § Leave a comment
Most histories of modern art in the USA seem to skip through the period after the Great War in Europe. It is easy to do, after all the huge burst in European art movements that occurred in the early part of the 20th Century had by then subsided. The war had split groups and killed artists with those surviving largely shocked and confused with the new world order, unsure of new directions.
In Europe, expressionism and surrealism became prominent but there has always seemed that there was less to grab the attention over the pond. In the USA the effect of the war was less profound but still notable. It began with the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age, to be quickly followed by the Depression in late twenties and thirties. We think of progress in technology, film and design, perhaps ‘art deco’, but what of art?
It is a welcome event therefore to see America’s Cool Modernism arriving at the Ashmolean. This is an exhibition that looks more closely at this period with for example early works by Georgia O’Keeffe, photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston and cityscapes by Edward Hopper.
There are plenty of works that have never travelled to the UK and there is the opportunity to learn of pioneers of modern American art whose work is less well-known in the UK, particularly Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.
It is often an anxious look at the period made with a cool detachment and emotional restraint. It is a world where people are largely missing from observations of eerie and empty places. But is it lost of hope or inspiring of redemption?
Of course we have Edward Hopper. His Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) has a gloomy atmosphere with a tiny, solitary pedestrian whose walking pace is at odds with the bridge’s traffic. The African American Jacob Lawrence shows the harsh experience of marginalised groups seeking a better life.
Similarly bleak is the art of George Ault. In New York Night No 2 (1921) we see a cold and inhuman Manhattan in a dreary fog.
But not all the art is angst ridden. There was an alternative and altogether more optimistic viewpoint. Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), was dedicated to the poet William Carlos Williams, and in more particularly to his poem The Great Figure: Among the rain, and lights, I saw the figure 5, in gold, on a red, firetruck … It consists of a giant, stylized ‘5’ painted in bold colours, evoking new styles of advertising and a remarkable anticipation of Pop Art.
Another stunning evocation of Pop is found in Stuart Davis’s painting Odol. This is Warhol’s Brillo and Campbell’s soup cans but painted nearly forty years earlier. Davis incorporated imagery from logos, commercial signage, and modern packaging. This is a sleek, streamlined ode to a bottle of mouthwash (he also painted Lucky Strike, a visual riff on a pack of cigarettes). His work is usually presented as simply visual ’synthetic cubism’ inspired by earlier modernist masters. We would give him more credit and suggest it is a far more knowing representation of – let’s just call it – ‘early pop’ culture.
There was great progress over this period in design, architecture and building techniques and the grand structures of this machine made world feature prominently. Skyscrapers and bridges are studies in geometry and cities sharp and modern. Louis Lozowick’s prints capture the energy with soaring buildings while Ralston Crawford and Sheeler depict the factories of industrial America as glorious new cathedrals.
Georgia O’Keeffe looks over rooftops and chimneys in East River from the Shelton Hotel. It is the epic and almost abstract American landscape, but instead of out in the desert she is in the heart of the city. With Black Abstraction (1919) she is even more abstract.
This is a distinctly American modernism when artists were trying to create a distinct visual language rooted in American landscape and tradition. We see here a cool restrained and pared-back aesthetic featuring smooth surfaces, pure lines and a lack of figures. The Ashmolean allows us to see the birth of a new distinctly American style in this tremendous exhibition.
For more information visit www.ashmolean.org
5 July 2016 § Leave a comment
‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs’ – Georgia O’Keefe
This post also appears at www.cellophaneland.com
This is the largest exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe ever to take place outside America and the first retrospective in the UK. Given too that there are no works in any British collection this is a rare opportunity to take a close look at the work of one of the most famous of American artists.
Famed for her close up flowers, New York cityscapes and desert landscapes – with or without bleached animal bones – this is somebody has come to represent the crowning achievements of American modernism.
Her journey was a remarkable one and in the Tate’s largely chronological approach we can see her development, from Wisconsin art student, via New York and a relationship with the leading proponent of European modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, before retiring to a ranch in the arid southwest.
The show opens with an impressive reconstruction of her 1916 show at 291 in New York. A group of charcoal sketches, heavily influenced by tutor Arthur Wesley Dow and Kandinsky’s abstract and spiritual approach, were shown to Alfred Stieglitz, the gallery’s influential owner. He spotted her early promise and put the works on show.
O’Keeffe soon moved to the city, and in to a lengthy relationship with Stieglitz. She adopted the philosophies and scientific ideas of the time: theosophy, synesthesia, with the spiritual underpinning her work. She painted abstracts – one of the first Americans to work this way – with an unmistakeable erotic symbolism that Stieglitz drew on to market her in the gallery.
He added his own nude images of her and stated that as a woman she ‘painted from the womb’. O’Keefe distanced herself from this angle, said the eroticism was in the eye of the beholder and from then veered away from abstracts. Even many years later, when artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro claimed her as an early feminist artist, which she obviously was, she sadly continued to avoid and deny this.
It was in New York too that, bored of the city, she began painting her iconic flowers. Despite stating that ‘I hate flowers—I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move’ they are now her most recognisable works. One somehow imagines them to fill the walls, but when seen at the Tate they seem surprisingly small and less impressive than anticipated.
A 1919 trip took her to the desert, which she adored, returning frequently and eventually moving to Santa Fe from New York when Stieglitz died in 1949. There are plenty of these desert landscapes here and the influence of Emily Carr, a Canadian artist that she met, is clear to see. Carr herself was strongly influenced by another Canadian, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven. All were concerned with the spiritual within the landscape and one wonders how strong this influence was.
In the desert she painted the colourful, arid landscapes. These are often impressive, but also sometimes they miss the bright light and sharpness you would expect – often appearing rather distant and flat. She also painted the weeds and adobe buildings and some of these stand out in the exhibition as more appealing for their simplicity and abstract forms.
She also loved the sun dried animal bones. Perhaps these represented for her the spirituality of the land but these are perhaps the least impressive works. It is all too obvious, especially when skulls are tackily suspended in space within the landscapes.
Fans of O’Keeffe are sure to love this exhibition whilst for others it may show up limitations, but this is still a show to admire. The Tate has put on a wonderful exhibition, which truly does justice to the fascinating works of a remarkable woman and a groundbreaking artist.
For more information visit www.tate.org