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The American Century

Part I, 1900 to 1950

Whitney Museum of American Art

April 25 to September 20, 1999

"Chinese Restaurant" by Max Weber

"Chinese Restaurant," by Max Weber, 1915, oil on canvas, 40 by 48 inches,

Whitney Museum of American Art

By Carter B. Horsley

Fin de siécle and millennium fever are upon us and the Whitney Museum of American Art has appropriately decided to review this century’s American art in a huge two-part exhibition that fills the entire museum.

The first part covers the first half of the century and each of the museum’s five main floors are devoted to a different decade. The exhibition, sponsored in large part by the Intel Corporation, includes not only paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculpture, but also movies, television, posters, book covers, architectural renderings, models and furniture and furnishings.

If the show has a major flaw, it is that it is too ambitious and tries to cram too many disciplines together. All the material is excellent and fascinating and the overviews are fine, but the proliferation here is distracting although it does provide good historical context. By including so much diverse material, the selection process necessarily gets more severe and what would have been better is to have a ten-part series, each covering a decade, rather than two-part. Of course, that would have been a vastly greater undertaking, even though worthwhile. The present show, and its accompanying book of the same title, written by curator Barbara Haskell and published by W. W. Norton & Co., ($40, softcover), are therefore highly condensed, like a freshman college introductory survey.

The exhibition wisely often offers more than one example of an artist’s work, but cries out for more, say twice as many, which would have made it rather definitive as opposed to merely excellent. The great value of such sweeping shows is that they offer fine opportunities for reassessments of individual artists and for placing the "national" achievements in a global perspective.

Many reviewers have taken the widely held view, expressed in virtually all textbooks on the subject, that American art did not really come into its own until the middle of the century with the emergence of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, arguing that American art pales beside the dazzling innovations of European art in the early part of the century.

That interpretation, however, is quite superficial and trite even if it is true that the Post-Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, Surrealists and German Expressionists were far more daring and experimental. In an otherwise scathing review of this exhibition in The New York Observer, Hilton Kramer notes that no mention is made of the great Armory Show of 1913 that introduced the European avant-garde to America and greatly influenced many American artists and collectors.

While this show is not likely to be as influential as the Armory Show, it makes a strong case, which could even have been made more strongly, that many American art of the first half of the century was nothing to be ashamed about.

There are a few glaring omissions, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock, the great poetic artists, and Augustus Tack, the modernist who was so admired by Duncan Phillips who created his own wonderful museum in Washington, D.C., that is perhaps the best museum in which to compare the art of America and Europe from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. (Phillips, incidentally, has many important Ryders.)

The show begins with some good but not sensational paintings by Frank Benson, Childe Hassam, Edward Tarbell, and Robert Henri (whose large portrait of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, greets visitors as they get off the elevator at the top floor).

While the pretty impressionism that was popular at the turn of the century is good though subdued in comparison to its European counterpart, it could occasionally be sensational and as good, but the works included here do not demonstrate that. Sadly, the show does not include major works by John Twachtman and William Merritt Chase, America’s finest Impressionists, nor Winslow Homer, America’s finest artist, and it could have included better Hassams, perhaps one of his Fifth Avenue "Flag" paintings. Twachtman’s finest paintings, for example, combine Impressionism and Whistlerian Tonalism with a slightly Oriental design mentality and some of Homer’s late marine scenes have the force of a tsunami. The first section, however, does include a great painting of three women dancing by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American’s finest artist of refined and ethereal women.

The Whitney show does pick up steam quickly, however, in the rooms devoted to the "Ashcan" School and the works of Henri and John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens among others. While Sloan and Glackens are shown to good effect, Henri and Luks are not, unfortunately. Henri was an inconsistent artist, but a very great teacher (whose book, "The Art Spirit," is must reading).

"'Because we are saturated with life because we are human,' Henri wrote, 'our strongest motive is life, humanity; and the stronger the motive back of a line, the stronger, and therefore the more beautiful, the line will be....It isn't the subject that cocunts, but what you feel about it,'" the catalogue quoted.

Luks is the most passionate of all American artists but sadly his great Lower East Side pictures are not in this show, although one of the most compelling works is his "Cakewalk," a 5 by 7 inch monotype in the collection of the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. "Even George Luks, who prided himself on his identification with the struggles of the working class, transformed the crowded street scenes of the Lower East Side slums into bustling, exotic pageants devoid of crime, overcrowding, or poverty," the catalogue observed.

The show includes several major urban scenes by John Sloan that depict life on the rooftops and in the bars but also some masterworks by other members of the Ash-Can School who were not adverse to the delights of the upper classes such as "The Shoppers," a fabulous, large painting by William Glackens in the collection of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and "Revue," an excellent theatrical work by Everett Shinn.

Close by, however, are the great photographs of the city's poor by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine as well as scenes from many early movies.

Several rooms on the musuem's redone top floor are magnificent and display thematically related works, in particularly one in which fine harbor scenes by Jonas Lie, William Glackens and Leon Kroll are displayed.

"Morning Sky" by Georgia O'Keefe

"Morning Sky," by Georgia O'Keefe, 1916, watercolor,

8 1/8 by 12 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

Early American moderns hold up very well. Marsden Hartley, Max Weber and Joseph Stella have knockout paintings in the exhibition as does Georgia O’Keefe. Weber’s large Cubist work, "Chinese Restaurant," shown at the top of this article, is superb and the others manifest individual visions of great power and originality that cannot be diminished by any European comparison. A small watercolor, "Morning Sky," shown above, by O'Keefe, is one of the show's more startling works as it predates Rothko by several decades. "Painting Number 5," by Marsden Hartley, shown below, is one of the artists's celebrated series of large abstract works inspired by his infatuation with the military while in Germany. It is one of the great paintings of the century of any continent.

"Painting, No. 5" by Marsden Hartley

"Painting, Number 5," by Marsden Hartley, 1914-5, oil on canvas,

39 1/2 by 31 3/4 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

"Oriental" by Stanton Macdonald-Wright

"Oriental," by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1918, oil on canvas,

36 by 50 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

John Marin, whose dazzling and colorful abstractions of New York are well represented, and Stuart Davis are included but not adequately enough, although such artists as Oscar Bluemner, Manierre Dawson, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and George L. K. Morris Lewis are shown to great advantage as is Man Ray. Macdonald-Wright's "Oriental," show above is a fine example of his Synchronist style that combines with great originality influences of Cubism and Futurism in a very dynamic fashion.One of the most stunning paintings in the exhibition is Dawson's "Prognostic," a 1910 work in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"New York" by Man Ray

"New York," by Man Ray, 1917, chromed and painted bronze,

17 by 9 5/16 by 9 5/16 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

Man Ray is too often overlooked, but is well represented in this exhibition by the bold small sculpture, "New York," shown above, and a splendid series of six exquisite collages from his 1916-7 "Revolving Door" series.

Edward Steichen’s paintings are very rare and very fine and always interesting, but here he is represented by his photography. Many of his paintings are tonalist and extremely evocative. His "Moonrise - Mamaroneck, New York," a 1904 platinum, cyanotype and ferroprussiate print is as lyrical as the greatest Impressionist paintings. Indeed, tonalism is given rather short shrift here sadly and remains much underappreciated. Steichen's photography, of course, is fabulous and the show includes several good examples including one of the Brooklyn Bridge. The show does an admirably job of highlighting the greatest of American photographers in the first half of the century with outstanding work by Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, F. Holland Day, Alfred Steiglitz, and Alvin Langdon Coburn, most of whom had a fascination for the city of skyscrapers and the Machine Age.

Such concerns were very much on the minds of American painters during the the Jazz Age and the Depression and works by Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn are still undervalued by most historians and collectors. Benton’s sinuous style consistently lends wonderful energy to his strong compositions and his skills as a muralist have unfairly been eclipsed by the academicians who have been obsessed with the fine but not as great Mexican muralists. Benton has also suffered from the Regionalist label also borne by John Stewart Curry, who is not a particularly good artist, and by Grant Wood, a very fine but not very productive artist. Shahn, on the other hand, the subject of a fine recent show of the Jewish Museum, is a marvelous artist whose vibrant illustrative facility deserved much more attention in this show.

"Nautical Composition" by George L. K. Morris

"Nautical Composition," by George L. K. Morris, 1937-1942,

oil on canvas, 51 by 35 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

While many critics have put down much American Art of the first half of the century as derivative that interpretation is unfair as sometimes great works in certain styles are not done by the style's originator but the followers. "Nautical Composition," shown above, by George L. K. Morris is an abstract composition with traces of Cubism and the style of Léger as imaginable, but it is simply fine on its own.

Charles Demuth is represented by several of his justly celebrated masterworks, such as "My Egypt," and "The Figure 5 in Gold," while his equally famous contemporary, Charles Sheeler, is represented by a lesser known but not less compelling work, "Church Street El," shown below.

"Church Street El" by Charles Sheeler

"Church Street El," by Charles Sheeler, 1920, oil on canvas,

16 1/8 by 19 1/8 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art,

Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund

The show's chronological approach is a little awkward when it comes to the New York School of Abstract Expressionists who became so famous and influential in the second half of the century but whose origins were in the 1940's. Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning are represented in the show with interesting and important works and perhaps the most striking painting in the exhibition of this period is the very bold work, shown below, by Arshile Gorky, from 1936 and 1937.

"Painting" by Arshile Gorky

"Painting," by Arshile Gorky, 1936-7, oil on canvas,

38 by 48 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art

The objects in the show come from many collections and afford the visitor an opportunity to see many masterpieces familiar only from textbooks on the subject.

Among the many other outstanding works are "The Chrysler Building, Under Construction," by Earle Horter, Joseph Stella's "Prestigitator," John Covert's "Resurrection," John Storr's "Forms in Space," George Ault's "Sullivan Street Abstraction," Gerald Murphy's "Watch," Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning," John Ferren's "Composition on Green," Paul Kelpe's "Untitled," Alice Trumbull Mason's "Brown Shapes White," Emil Bisttram's "Two Cells at Play," and Clyfford Still's "Untitled."

The show's major stars are Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Marsden Hartley and Edward Steichen. Arthur Dove, Arthur B. Davies, John Marin, Robert Henri, Charles Sheeler, could have been better represented, but the Whitney deserves great credit for including so many lesser known artists, such as Ferren, Ault, Covert and Horter.

The catalogue's text is rich in themes, material and perspectives and provides a superb overview of the nation's cultural interests and experiments. From social concerns to pictorial ideals, the gamut of American Art in the 20th Century resists oversimplification and the chronological notion of the show is artificial: artists do not wake up one morning in a new century with a new style, or inspiration, at least not all. While not encyclopedic in its scope, this show is, nonetheless, very impressive and its catalogue should be acquired by everyone as it is nostalgic, provocative, interesting and rather overwhelming, even if not definitive. It would have been nice if the catalogue had included brief biographies of the artists.

Hopefully, the exhibition will make some people take notice that there was lots of very fine American art before Andy Warhol.

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