America’s Cool Modernism
23 March – 22 July 2018
Review by Rowland Bagnall
The first and last painting I looked at in America’s Cool Modernism – I doubled back to see it again before leaving the gallery – was Marsden Hartley’s ‘Painting No.50’ (1914 - 1915). It’s a colourful abstract work, made from geometric shapes, dominated by a large pyramid-like structure that fans open at the top: two sets of coloured wings, like the sails of a windmill, or the wings of a giant moth, stretch out across the canvas; below, a bow and arrow aims itself skywards, moments from being released. It’s verging on the kaleidoscopic and stands out – even alongside early abstract paintings by Patrick Henry Bruce, Edward Steichen, and Georgia O’Keeffe – as particularly striking.
A friend of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley was one of several experimental American painters active in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. In the run up to the First World War, Stieglitz had been displaying the work of many modern European artists at his ‘291’ gallery on Fifth Avenue, while the Armory Show, held in 1913, had exposed America to the European avant-garde on a scale that was as thrilling as it was divisive. With these European models to work against, however, the question of how to develop a visual language that was both quintessentially ‘modern’ and, at the same time, indisputably American – whatever that might mean – was pressing. The answers to this question form the basis of America’s Cool Modernism, but also start to make sense of the Hartley painting, too, which combines the frenzied energies of architectural construction – reflecting the rapid growth of America’s new cities, skyscrapers, and factories – with the aesthetic traditions of a slowly-fading Native American culture. In striving for an authentic ‘American Modernism’, Hartley’s painting seems to look in two directions at once, as if unsure which road to take.
For curator Katherine M. Bourguignon, the abstract works in the opening room of the exhibition reveal a process of ‘extraction’, ‘of emptying out and simplifying in order to reveal essential structures’. Morton Schamberg’s ‘Untitled (Mechanical Abstraction)’ (1916), is a good example, showing the partially-deconstructed silhouette of an industrial flat-bed knitting machine, half blueprint, half abstract design, while Edward Steichen’s ‘Le Tournesol (The Sunflower)’ (c.1920), displays a geometrically simplified still life, stripped back to its most basic components, as if in defiant opposition to Van Gogh’s sunflowers of the late 1880s. While these early abstractions may not discover the ‘essential structures’ of an inherently American modernism, they do suggest an era of profound creative potential. Several artworks offer up a literal set of building blocks, as in Patrick Henry Bruce’s ‘Peinture’ (1971 - 1918), or ‘Sound’ (1919), a rare painting by the poet E.E. Cummings, while the organic structures of paintings by Helen Torr and Georgia O’Keeffe imply a kind of natural growth, an outward flowering that goes beyond the confines of the frame. O’Keeffe’s intimidating ‘Black Abstraction’ (1927), is in itself a kind of void, a black and empty nothingness, in which a pin-prick of white light contains, perhaps, the potential for a sudden and intense creation.
Thinking about these paintings now, and the attempt to establish an American aesthetic, I’m reminded of a passage from Waldo Frank’s book, Our America, first published in 1919. ‘America is yet in the inchoate state where it has subjective meaning only,’ he writes, though to try and pin it down, ‘to give it a definite character’, might end up conflicting with the idea of an all-inclusive, sprawling American democracy, at least of the kind set out by Walt Whitman in his epic poetic project, Leaves of Grass, which first appeared in 1855. A few pages later, however, Frank seems optimistic about the future of America’s identity. It’s almost like he’s writing this directly to the artists: ‘In this infancy of our adventure, America is a mystic Word. We go forth all to seek America. And in the seeking we create her. In the quality of our search shall be the nature of the America that we create’.
Emerging after the First World War, the Precisionists came to be regarded as the first home-grown movement of modern art in the United States. As if seizing upon the building blocks of early abstraction, they constructed sleek, unpopulated architectural paintings, guided by a new landscape of factories, bridges, skyscrapers, and gridded cities. Often photographic in their compositions (several of the painters were practicing photographers), paintings like Charles Sheeler’s MacDougal ‘Alley’ (1924), Niles Spencer’s ‘Waterfront Mill’ (1940), and Charles Demuth’s ‘Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M.’ (1921), are governed by a flat, measured exactitude, a detached impersonal aesthetic – the ‘cool’-ness of the exhibition’s title – which appeared, to many, to celebrate the rapid industrial and economic growth of the United States. Lithographs by Russian-born Louis Lozowick, for instance, appear to capture a genuine sense of awe at the architectural grandeur of the New York skyline. Elsewhere, an etching by Samuel Margolies, ‘Man’s Canyon’ (1936), offers a plunging view of the Chrysler, Empire State, and unfinished Rockerfeller Center buildings, challenging the spectacular natural wonders of America’s national parks, as if Margolies were responding directly to Ansel Adams’ early monolithic photographs of Yosemite Valley in California.
Walking among the Precisionist’s paintings, I realized that they reminded me of early travel posters and advertising campaigns, the kind that promote a particular city or an ocean liner. Demuth’s painting ‘Welcome to Our City’ (1921), even seems to carry this spirit in its title, while Stuart Davis’ ‘Jefferson Market, New York’ (1930), has that same quality of stuffing famous buildings and landmarks into one image, regardless of geographical accuracy. In this respect, the paintings behave as a kind of advertisement, showing off the country’s newfound urban splendour, and is made all the more conspicuous alongside ‘Odol’ (1924), Davis’ painting of a branded bottle of mouthwash, which wouldn’t be out of place in a dedicated Pop Art exhibition.
And yet, the Precisionist aesthetic holds a very different side, as well. There’s a peculiar ugliness to certain paintings like Oscar Bleumner’s ‘Little Falls, New Jersey’ (1917), and Joseph Stella’s ‘Metropolitan Port’ (c.1935 - 1937). In other pictures, what we’re looking at is undoubtedly beautiful, in a quiet, understated way, but the places now seem somewhat uninviting: O’Keeffe’s ‘East River from The Shelton Hotel’ (1928), is cold, the far side of the city vague and hazy with polluted air; the street in George Ault’s ‘New York Night, No.2’ (1921), is claustrophobic and lifeless, and a dense fog is rapidly drawing up it. As for Spencer’s ‘Erie Underpass’ (1949) – part Escher, part de Chirico – the painting’s looming eeriness is hidden in the name.
Above all, the absence of human presence in the artworks betrays an anxiety towards the place of people in an increasingly mechanised world. I found myself thinking about the photographs of Detroit that surfaced several years ago, showing the derelict buildings and factories that remain in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy, and about Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film ‘Homo Sapiens’ (2016), a striking visual testament to the strange beauty of abandoned spaces: swimming pools, shopping malls, hospitals, theatres. I was reminded, also, of the American photographer Kai Caemmerer’s series, ‘Unborn Cities’ (2015), which documents a number of China’s yet-to-be populated urban areas, thrown up at the beginning of the twenty-first century, still waiting to be inhabited. Even Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s avant-garde film, ‘Manhatta’ (1920), which celebrates a day-in-the-life of vibrant New York City, doesn’t escape a feeling of retrospective uncertainty: beautiful though the footage is, the film contains flickers of Fritz Lang’s dystopian ‘Metropolis’ (1927) – conceived by Lang after a visit to New York in 1924 – and Charlie Chaplain’s ‘Modern Times’ (1936), in which Chaplain’s Little Tramp is systematically overwhelmed by the pressures of an industrialized world.
Right on cue, the exhibition’s final room explores the retreat by certain artists to the pace (and peace) of rural life, drawing alternative inspiration from American folk art, agricultural architecture, and Shaker furniture. The best among these are several oil paintings by Ralston Crawford, and Sheeler’s perspective-defying ‘Americana’ (1931), depicting the interior of his home in South Salem and O’Keeffe’s geographical transition to the deserts of New Mexico is represented by her Ranchos Church’ (1930).
If a coherent American modernism does emerge from these artworks, then it’s difficult to put into words. The culmination of the above, both here and in the exhibition, seems to be Edward Hopper, so I’m tempted to say something about how the artworks on display end up revealing the relationship between America and loneliness, or that the idea of American modernism is somehow linked to the uncertainty of what it means to be ‘American’, and the anxieties that come to bear the fruit of that uncertainty. But I also don’t want to view the entire exhibition through the lens of Hopper’s work by accident. Yes, there is a certain powerful, cinematic melancholy to paintings like ‘Manhattan Bridge Loop’ (1928), and ‘From Williamsburg Bridge’ (1928), the solitary figures appear like actors on a stage, inviting a narrative, but for some reason I’m reluctant to make a bold connection between these paintings and the artworks that have gone before. Like the figures that appear in them, Hopper’s paintings seem slightly on their own.