By Carter B. Horsley
The Smithsonian American Art
Museum in Washington, D.C., is a major museum with spectacular
works by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church,
Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Eastman Johnson, George Catlin,
Ralph Albert Blakelock, and many other very important 19th Century
It is also rich in 20th century
works and during the three-year renovation of its facility in
the former Old Patent Office Building, it has decided to let some
500 of its "treasures" travel in eight different exhibitions
and this small but superb show at the National Academy of Design
at 1083 Fifth Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets, is the one
selected, not inappropriately, for New York where so many of the
artists worked and lived.
The exhibition is not a comprehensive
survey of 20th Century American art but it shines in what it does
present and it does much to resurrect some very neglected but
fine artists, such as George L. K. Morris (1905-1975), Suzy Frelinghuysen
(1911-1988), William Baziotes (1912-1963), Theodore Roszak (1907-1981),
and H. Lyman Sayen (1875-1918), while also presenting some knock-out
works by such major figures as Max Weber (1881-1961), Joseph Stella
(1877-1946), Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986), Clyfford Still (1904-1980),
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Ad Reinhardt
(1913-1967), and Kenneth Noland (born 1924).
Other artists included in the
show are such well-known artists as Marsden Hartley (1877-1943),
Stuart Davis (1894-1964), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Arthur
Dove (1880-1946), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Hans Hofmann (1880-1966),
Sam Francis (1923-1994), Franz Kline (1910-1962), Lee Krasner
(1908-1984), Larry Rivers (born 1923), Helen Frankenthaler (born
1928), Philip Guston (1913-1980), Milton Avery (1885-1965), David
Hockney (born 1937), Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971), Richard Pousette-Dart
(1916-1992), Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925), Ellsworth Kelly
(born 1923), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Jan Matulka (1890-1972),
Joan Mitchell (1926-1992), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Beverly
Pepper (born 1924), and Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920).
Other less-known artists in
the exhibition are Frederick Brown (born 1945), William Christenberry
(born 1936), Gene Davis (1920-1985), William H. Johnson (1901-1970),
Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), Jacob Kainen (born 1909), Norman
Lewis (1909-1979), Nathan Oliveira (born 1928), Paul Reed (born
1919), Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Bob Thompson (1937-1966), Paul
Wonner (born 1920), Esphyr Slobodkina (born 1908), and Mark Tansey
Some stars are missing from
this firmament: Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Thomas Hart Benton,
Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist,
David Smith, Arshile Gorky, Richard Diebenkorn, Guy Pene du Bois,
Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, and Mark Rothko.
They are not missed, however,
as there is plenty to see and enjoy here and it is a good practice
to show lesser-known but deserving artists along with the "names,"
especially when many of them hold their own quite well.
The finest work in the exhibition
is "Ascending Space," a gilden bronze on stone base
sculpture by George L. K. Morris, who is known primarily for his
wonderful geometrically abstract paintings usually in a rather
dark palette. This 1946 work, which measures 67 by 110.2 by 58.7
centimeters, is very striking and dynamic. Somewhat reminiscent
of works by Chilida and Archipenko, it is rhythmically bold and
very strong. According to the catalogue, Morris produced sculptures
between 1935 and 1956 and they usually had projecting triangular
or pyramidal forms.
it observed, "is a heroic sculpture that celebrates advances
in flight. It joins the images of an American Indian arrow and
an abstracted airplane in a modern vision. While the trajectories
of the forms are dynamic, the three triangles suggest a classic
trinity linked by the gracefully curving arc. A founding member
of the American abstract Artists, influential critic for the Partisan
Review, and Suzy Frelinghuysen's husband, Morris developed
a personal kind of abstractioin from studying the formal simplications
of Native American art and design, as well as from Parisian Cubism."
wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen, is represented in the exhibition by
"Composition - Toreador Drinking," shown above, a 129.8-by-89.3-centimeter
oil on canvas, executed in 1944. It is a very fine work that recalls
some of Juan Gris's Cubist works but Frelinghuysen has used a
softer palette and more curves. The artist, according to the catalogue,
"brought humor and elegance to synthetic cubism.," adding
that in this work, "a slender character sits up straight,
with glass and carafe nearby, locked within a checkerboard construction
that simplifies figure and setting to the same formal common denominator."
Describing her unusual palette as pleasing and tart" and
her composition as "engagingly complex," the catalogue
entry said that the artist was "a founding member of the
American Abstract Artists and a collector who helped introduce
avant-garde European Art to the United States" as well as
a "professional opera singer."
A very intriguing
and strong work is "Recording Sound," shown above, a
plaster and oil on wood work, 81.3 by 121.9 by 17.1 centimeters,
executed in 1932 by Theodore Roszak, another artist/musician.
"An accomplished violinist," the catalogue entry maintained,
"Theodore Roszak encompasses the world of live performance
within the gramophone's trumpet, an operatic scene that presents
sound's origin and transmission. A balloon, floating above the
machine, is a metaphor for the transporting power of music. He
also loved geometric forms and inscribed the image's mini-universe
in a perfect circle, a form echoed throughout the composition.
Roszak was an industrial artist who appreciated modern technology
and wanted to integrate the arts and industry."
precision-like and more colorful is "The Thundershower,"
shown above, by H. Lyman Säyen, a 91.4-by-116.8-centimeter
tempera that was given by the artist to the Smithsonian American
Museum as a gift "to his nation."
The work, the catalogue entry noted, "is an energetic tableau
that condenses indoor and outdoor views, with wallpapered walls
and striped floors, into patterned and solid color planes. It
reveals the influences of Säyen's perceptual experiments
with a revolving disk. Creaking hs own version of futurism, Säyen
made compositions that unfold like fans. Arabesques of color flatten
the shallow, stagelike scene, their rhythms drawing our attention
to the arcs of pink rain and curvaceous female bodies. Thundershower
is filed with the joie de vivre that Säyen had absorbed from
studying with Matisse." The artist was an inventor of X-ray
tubes and procedures, the catalogue continued, "engineer
of electrical instruments, commercial artist, oil painter and
A similar, dance-like lyricism is evident in Georgia O'Keefe's
"Untitled (Manhattan)," shown above, a 214.3-by-122.4-centimeter
oil that is the artist's only mural painting. It was created for
the opening exhibition in 1932 of the Museum of Modern Art in
New York. O'Keefe, who lived for many years with Alfred Stieglitz
on the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue
and 48th Street, depicted Manhattan's skyscrapers many times and
this is one of her strongest compositions although her placement
of roses detracts somewhat from its forcefulness although it adds
a bit of dream-like reverie.
Not all the works in the exhibition are reproduced in the catalogue
and another O'Keefe, "Only One," a 1959 painting, is
one of the finest in the show, a bold, abstract landscape.
Franz Kline is a consistent strong Abstract Expressionist and
"Merce C," is a fine example. The 236.2-by-189.4-centimeter
oil on canvas is a typical flourish of dark black on a white background
and is, according to the catalogue entry, a portrait of Kline's
friend, Merce Cunningham the great dancer and choreographer. While
Cunningham is not recognizable in this painting, its animated
brushwork and angularity do strongly suggest Cunningham's frenetic
and idiosyncratic style.
The exhibition has another fine abstract painting that is also
a portrait of an artist's friend. It is "Dabrowsky V,"
a 03.2-by-254-centimeter oil on canvas by Jacob Kainen, who named
the work after his friend, John Graham, the artist who was known
as Ivan Dabrowsky in Russia before immigrating to the Untied States,
according to the catalogue entry.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"With colors reflecting Graham's Russian palette, the soft-edge
geometric shapes, according to Kainen, stand for Graham's 'austere
magical personality.' The dynamic positioning of shapes, balance,
and massing reflect Graham's intense personality. Dabrowsky
V is one of an occasional series with similar forms in different
colors, sizes, and proportions. The soft colors and simple geometric
shapes, arranged at purposeful intervals, establish harmony. The
indeterminate identities of these forms allude to the mysterious
symbols Graham used in his paintings."
This is a very lovely, warm work that conjures the hotter abstractions
of Adolph Gottlieb and the cooler abstractions of Bradley Tomlin
Walker, but is less insistent than either, which is not a bad
"Harbor under the Midnight Sun," a 71-by-95.3-centimeter
oil by William H. Johnson is a vibrant and explosive landscape
that most likely would have struck Marsden Hartley rather dumb
with delight. The 1937 painting depicts Svolvaer, a fjord in Norway
where the artist lived for five years. This is a stunning work
and a strong challenger for the best painting in the show. It
is outclassed however, by Robert Motherwell's "Monster (for
Charles Ives)," shown below, a lively work that clearly depicts
a rather lovable monster. Motherwell's painting, executed in 1959,
wins out over Johnson's because Motherwell's painting is huge:
198.8 by 300.4 centimeters. Motherwell, according to the catalogue,
conceived the monumental image while listened to music by Charles
Ives, and it is one of his best works.
excellent and bold abstraction dated from 1959 is "Split,"
a 237.8-by-238.5-centimeter acrylic on canvas by Kenneth Noland.
Between 1956 and 1963, Noland executed about 200 "circle"
paintings but this one is certainly one of the best.
dark brown "monster" is a good companion piece for "1964-H
(Indian Red and Black," an excellent example of Clyfford
Still's superb abstraction. "The rugged silhouette, crusty
surface, and vast scale of Clyfford Still's paintings reflect
his North Dakota homeland.[and its] jagged flamelike forms, slashing
streaks of black and white, and thickly painted intense colors
create a dramatic panorama. Still was a visionary artist committed
to establishing a distinctly American aesthetic. In creating images
of limitless scale, he conveyed a palpable sense of freedom,"
the catalogue entry stated. This oil on canvas measures 198.8
by 173.7 centimeters and was executed in 1946.
A bold and
very impressive contrast to the Still is "Interception,"
a striking 1996 oil by Mark Tansey that is a dark, swirling scene
of delicate and awesome mystery. The artist, the catalogue noted,
"combines realism, intellectual theory, literary associations,
and a sense of the uncanny to construct postmodern allegories.
Striking contrasts of dark and light, great discrepancies of scale,
and shifting perspectives dramatize the nocturnal scene in Interception.
We look at the scene as if it were a movie, peering into a charred
landscape where figures struggle to control a billowing cloth.
A giant beam of light illuminates the cloth, revealing images
as projections and reflections. The figures allude to a Greek
legend about the origin of art: Painting was invented when a young
woman traced the silhouette of her love, cast as a shadow by firelight
onto a wall. The magic of representation is the theme of that
myth and this painting."
celebrity of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism overpowered
some very fine abstract talents such as William Baziotes and Theodore
Stamos, two kindred spirits who consistently produced lyrical
and poetic abstractions that were usually warmer and softer than
many Abstract Expressionist works. Although Stamos is not included
in the exhibition, Baziotes is represented by "Scepter,"
a 1960-1 oil on canvas, 167.7 by 198.4 centimeters, shown above,
one of the show's highlights.
according to the catalogue, "painted primeval dreamworlds.
Here, two presences seem to confront each other in a mythic encounter.
Their buoyancy and the dappled background evoke a primordial sea,
but this ancient broth already contains in the sceptered form
the germ of pride and complexity that evolved in later, human
life. This netherworld brims with both stillness and drama."
A perfect sculptural match
for the Baziotes is "Grey Sun," a large marble work,
shown above, by Isamu Noguchi, shown above, which was executed
in 1967. Noguchi, who is perhaps the finest abstract sculptor
of the 20th Century, "made visible the basic forms and forces
of nature, using natural materials and fundamental shapes,"
according to the catalogue, which was written by Miranda McClintic
and published by Watson-Guptill Publications/New York and the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, which was formerly known as the
National Museum of American Art. "Noguchi frequently used
the circle as a timeless, universal symbol, related to the sun,
origin of life, and basis of numerical systems," the catalogue
entry added. This is a very fine Noguchi, notable for its lyrical
form and subtle incisions.
The most luscious work in the
exhibition is "Summer," a 1909 painting, shown above,
by Max Weber, that combines the artist's interests in Tribal Art,
Cubism, and the influence of the "Bathers" by Cézanne
into a richly and deeply saturated, Gauguin-like landscape that
resonates with earthly pleasures and voluptuous naked women.
Its dance-like quality is mirrored
in a very fine and colorful 1940 abstraction, "Untitled,"
by Ad Rinehardt whose complex jumble of mostly rectinlinear lines
of varying widths conveys the jazziness of Stuart Davis and Piet
Mondrian and the transcendental abstractions of Irene Rice Pereira.
Davis is also represented in the show, albeit with a minor but
typical work, but Pereira's work is atypical of her later intriguing
The Principal Financial Group
is a sponsor of the traveling exhibitions and Watson-Guptil Publications,
a division of BPI Communications, Inc., 770 Broadway, New York,
NY 10003 is the publisher of the catalogues, which cost only $19.95
each. The other titles in the series are "Scenes of American
Life," "Arte Latino," "Contemporary Folk Art,"
"American Impressionism," "The Gilded Age,"
"Lure of the West" and "Young America." They
are available from amazon.com for 30 percent off their list prices and are excellent, although the commentaries
The Smithsonian American Art
Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal
government in 1829 and now has about 38,000 paintings, sculptures,
prints, drawings, photographs and objects. Its main building,
the Old Patent Office building, closed on Jan. 3, 2000 for a three-year
renovation, but the museum is continuing a full program of craft
exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery, located on Pennsylvania Avenue
at 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. For information about Renwick
Gallery activities, call Smithsonian Information at (202) 357-2700.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a website