Shelburne Museum hosts American Moderns – an Arts Fuse review
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell at the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, through September 13
Isabel Lydia Whitney, “The Blue Peter,” 1927-1928. Oil on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.
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.
Marsden Hartley, “Handsome Drinks,” 1916. Oil on composition board. Photo: Courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.
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.
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Green,Yellow and Orange,” 1960. Oil on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.
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.
Review published in artsfuse.org
A chance meeting
Sunday, April 26, 2015
The restaurant was closed at noon, but through the window I could see a carefully wrought balance of spareness and comfort, white birch logs mounted on the walls. From the sidewalk behind me a voice said, “Hi, I’m the owner.” A man stood with bags of shellfish and produce in his arms.
A memory of something I had read months ago, about a chef who used only Maine ingredients, took shape. A rigorous discipline to adhere to, particularly in winter. He was a poet, too, as I recalled.
“Please come in,” he said, I did, and our talk turned to Robert Bly and Dante, taking from the land and the sea and giving to others. The beauty of taking on an aesthetic discipline and creating within it.
That evening, back for mahogany clams and Casco Bay mussels, cocktails with beet infused vermouth, a shrub made with blueberry vinegar.
Notorious R.B.G. . . .does not cook
Monday, February 23, 2015
Great to see the tumblr generation appreciating the pen-and-paper generation. In this case, a pen-and-yellow legal pad woman, Notorious R.B.G. See notoriousrbg.tumblr.com.
Before she became notorious, R.B.G. was married to Martin Ginsburg who was, by all accounts, a near genius tax lawyer, a charmer and a great cook. When he died, the justices’ spouses, led by Marta-Ann Alito, paid him tribute by publishing a book of his recipes, Chef Supreme Martin Ginsburg. Among the reminiscences is daughter Jane’s line when she was young: “Mommy does the thinking and Daddy does the cooking.” Mommy, that is, Notorious R.B.G.
Art thou political? An Arts Fuse review
Thursday, January 8, 2015
The aim of National Pride (and Prejudice) is to prompt viewers into reexamining the relationship between a country’s iconic images and its not-so-reassuring realities.
National Pride (and Prejudice) in the Edward H. Linde Gallery (Gallery 168) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, through April 12.
By Kathleen C. Stone
In this small show, seven contemporary artists explore the complex subject of national identity. Most, but not all, are American, and their aim is to cast a critical light on a nation’s traditional symbols, usually objects such as the American flag and Stonehenge. The idea is to prompt viewers into reexamining the relationship between a country’s iconic images and its not-so-reassuring realities.
Dave Cole’s American Flag (Bullets) delivers an eloquently quiet statement about patriotism, militarism, and our country’s love affair with the gun. Constructed from bullet casings — shiny ones from overseas for the stripes and darker domestic ones for the field of stars — the piece builds on Cole’s earlier work, which made creative use of gun debris and the flag. His 2005 installation The Knitting Machine (which took place at the Mass MoCA) knit a 20-square foot American flag out of felt, using 30-foot long “needles” attached to the arms of John Deere backhoes. The project took five days and was completed on the fourth of July. In Breastplate No. 6 (Oglala Sioux Tribe, circa 1891), Cole used bullet casings to replicate a Native American breastplate in the Smithsonian’s collection. For the flag on view in National Pride (and Prejudice), he combines the refuse of our wars, murders, assassinations and practice ranges with one of our most potent national symbols. But he leaves us free to draw our own conclusions about the juxtaposition.
Stan Natchez’s painting Guernica to Wounded Knee takes a much more didactic approach. Combining the bright colors and commercial logos common to Pop art (including a Pontiac Service sign, complete with the Ottawa chief’s profile) with imagery drawn from Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, the artist depicts the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. That event, in 1890, put an end to armed conflict between federal troops and Native Americans, but its legacy of murder and hatred runs deep. With this colorful painting, Natchez encourages us to confront the violence at Wounded Knee, as well as the continuing commercial exploitation of native lands.
A visually stunning video, backed by a steel orchestra sound track, commands viewers’ attention. English Magic is a film Jeremy Deller created for the 2013 Venice Biennale; in it, we watch trained birds fly across verdant landscapes, leather jesses attached to their legs, talons stretched for landing. Their claws morph into sharp arms of a multi-pronged demolition machine. Two Land Rovers are picked up and dumped into a crushing machine and annihilated.
These images are compelling in and of themselves, but Deller’s cultural critique points are subtly woven through what might be dismissed as a surreal narrative. The viewer will need knowledge about British business in order to understand the film’s message. For instance, the crushing scene is heavily ironic because the iconic product of a venerable British company is destroyed; Tata Motors, an Indian conglomerate, now owns the Jaguar Land Rover Company; and Mumbai, the city known during the Raj as Bombay, Gateway to India, is the home for Tata’s corporate headquarters. As for the fowl, Americans may wonder why Deller lingers on them, majestic and beautiful as they are. But for the English public, the birds recall a 2007 incident when two rare hen harriers were shot in a nature preserve. Prince Harry and a friend were nearby and questioned, but no charges were filed because the birds’ bodies were missing.
Other of Deller’s film bits seem more lighthearted. School children bounce on an inflatable Stonehenge; they are clearly having fun but the hijinks raise questions about culture and sacrilege. The Lord Mayor’s Parade marches through an urban center. Participants in medieval garb hold the signs of their guilds, except that today’s guilds are actuaries and chartered accountants instead of cobblers and apothecaries. When they pause in front of a Ladbrokes betting shop, the notion that capitalism turns history into farce is inescapable.
Miss America, a photograph by Lyle Ashton Harris, is one of the show’s standouts. The face of an African American woman is covered in reverse minstrel white powder. She seems to be poised for a kiss, with lips pursed, but there is no feeling of passion; she and her unseen lover seem merely to co-exist. According to the Miss America website, eight black women have won the title in ninety-three years, the first in 1983. Obviously, the photograph makes a statement about that absurdity. But it goes much further, becoming a criticism of American attitudes on racism at a time when the country cannot turn away from dealing with the issue.
Other pieces comment on Mao, gays in the military, and the atomic bomb. Let’s hope that National Pride (and Prejudice) is successful enough for the creation of an expanded version: there is so much more American hubris left to examine.
The dictionary speaks: Democratic it is
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Yesterday I was listening to the Diane Rehm show when a caller complained that the label ‘Democratic’ usurps the notion of democracy for just one political party. The proper name for the party is ‘Democrat,’ she said. The panelists jumped all over the caller’s point, one of them vociferously, as an example of the petty thinking that pervades Washington. Instead of working together to solve big issues, some people devolve to the least meaningful level of discourse.
True enough. The panel also could have made the point that our country is a constitutional republic, so why bother trying to claim the word democratic? But a trip to the dictionary is another way to put the issue to rest.
Republicans can have it both ways, since ‘republican’ is both a noun and an adjective, according to Merriam-Webster. On the other hand, Democrats have to make a distinction between the party and a voter. ‘Democratic,’ being an adjective, properly modifies ‘Party,’ but ‘Democrat,’ a noun, refers to a voter. Since ‘Democrat Party’ makes no sense grammatically, it’s probably best if we just forget about this caller’s point altogether.