Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950
Philadelphia Museum of Art
April 18—September 3, 2018
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Modern art in the United States came of age between 1913 and 1951. These two years were highlighted by art exhibitions of seminal importance, both held in New York City. The controversial Armory Show of February 1913 shocked an America still clinging to the moral certitudes of the Victorian Age. Nearly four decades later, the Ninth Street Show, held between May 21-June 10, 1951, marked the triumph of the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School.
A great deal of American art was created in between these two red-letter dates. The range and variety of art produced during those crowded decades is truly impressive, as can be seen in the recently-opened exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950
The works of art on view in Modern Times are almost entirely drawn from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). A few come from a private collection which has been promised to the PMA, but there can be little doubt about the exceptional caliber of the museum's holdings of American art.
Many of these works came to the PMA during the cash-strapped 1930's and 1940's. The head of the PMA at that time, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), used his limited resources to buy or to encourage donations of then contemporary art. The payoff for Kimball's astute collection strategy can be seen in this excellent exhibit.
Modern Times is a comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable examination of how American art reflected, rejected and retooled the accepted ideals of society in "these United States." It is brilliantly curated by Jessica Todd Smith. As an added touch, period clothing and artifacts, such as flapper dresses and Prohibition-era cocktail shakers, are used to complement the art on display.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Jessica Todd Smith, Curator of the Modern Times exhibit
A key work of the exhibit is Georgia O’Keeffe's Red and Orange Streak. Painted in 1919, shortly O’Keeffe moved to New York City, it is both an abstract and a realist work of art. O'Keeffe painted it as an homage to the Texas plains where she had lived prior to moving to the East Coast. O'Keeffe took nocturnal walks, observing the dazzling displays of lighting above the darkened expanse of the prairie.
Such "special effects" in nature are impossible to depict in terms of absolute realism. In fact, no such state exists is nature because the real impact is felt, indeed co-created, in the imagination of the viewer.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Red and Orange Streak, 1919
O’Keeffe acknowledged this in letter to a friend, noting that “the whole thing—lit up—first in one place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just sheet lightning—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just looking at the lightning.”
Here we can see the process at work that informed O'Keeffe's often-quoted belief that, "nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."
O’Keeffe's Red and Orange Streak came to the PMA in 1949, part of her generous endowment of art works by herself and by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who had died in 1946. The PMA is rich in works by both artists and this no doubt helped the museum recently secure a vast archive of photos by Paul Strand, Stieglitz' versatile colleague.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times exhibit, showing works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills and Bones (1943) and From the Lake, No. 3 (1924)
With several of her works on view, we are able to appreciate O'Keeffe's trajectory as an artist and that of twentieth century American art as a whole. More famous for her landscapes of New Mexico, such as Red Hills and Bones (1943), O'Keeffe also painted works evoking the backwoods feel of Stieglitz' summer home at Lake George, New York. What makes this 1924 painting, From the Lake, No. 3, so significant is that O'Keeffe pointed in the direction that American mainstream art would take, leading to the Ab-Ex paintings at the Ninth Street Show of 1951.
The transition from realism to abstraction was but one of the seismic shifts which occurred in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. The Armory Show certainly led to the efforts of Stuart Davis during the 1930's to "strip a subject down to the real physical source of its stimulus" and then to the 1950's abstraction of Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock.
Stuart Davis, Something on the Eight Ball, 1953-1954
Realism, however, never entirely lost out to Abstraction. Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and O'Keeffe herself maintained figurative art as a force to be reckoned with. The truth about America's search for an answer to the challenges of the twentieth century, in art and in society, is that there was no one solution, no defining creed of Modernism. Rather, there were many.
During this period of bewildering change, American society crossed the divide from regionalism to a nationalistic identity, from a solidly White Protestant moral code to an acceptance of diversified ethnic ideals. For the first time, the creative talents of African Americans and women secured a beachhead on the New York-East Coast art scene.
Horace Pippin, The Getaway, 1939
Dox Thrash, likewise wounded in World War I, was a gifted painter and a superlative print maker. His powerful images, especially in this latter medium, celebrated African American life at a time when it was all but marginalized by the dominant White culture .
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Beauford Delaney's Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) was possibly the most talented of the African American artists on view in the PMA exhibit, as his striking portrait of the writer James Baldwin testifies. Delaney however had the bad luck to begin his career just as the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance were cut short by the Wall Street Crash. After years of struggle and hardship, he eventually emigrated to France in the 1950's.
The role of women in the visual arts is also surveyed in Modern Times. However, the numerous works by Georgia O'Keeffe dominate this aspect of the exhibit and the absence of talented female photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott is a further weak point.
A more questionable feature of Modern Times is the lack of art related to the World Wars and the economic collapse of the 1930's. In terms of the impact on the lives of America's people between 1910 to 1950, the global conflicts had powerful and enduring effects. So too did the Great Depression. Yet, there are few direct references to these events.
Man Ray, A.D. 1914, 1914
World War I does figure in two major paintings in the exhibit. Both, however, require considerable effort to interpret before their allusions to the horrors of 1914-1918 can be appreciated. In A.D. 1914, Man Ray posed the combatants, men and horses, in a cubist style which directly acknowledges works from the 1913 Armory Show, especially Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.
More indirectly - and ultimately more emotionally affecting - is Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), created by Marsden Hartley in 1915.
Marsden Hartley, Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915
These paintings are essentially painted colleges, grouping examples of German military insignia, patriotic memorabilia, cult-like symbols and cryptic allusions to von Freyberg's identity. The toy horse for instance refers to von Freyberg's branch of the army, the cavalry.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Marsden Hartley's Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse)
Von Freyberg was killed on October 7, 1914 at a small French town called Gommecourt, not far from the English Channel. The German and Allied forces were engaged in an attempt to outflank each other called the "Race to the Sea." Neither won and both armies, upon reaching the Channel, began digging trenches. The horror of the Western Front had begun.
This excursion into military history is significant because it reminds us how all of the trappings of military glory, which were held to be important before 1914, were now utterly useless. The medals and insignia, which Hartley painted with such vibrant energy, served no purpose except as talismans to cherish the memory of the dead.
Hartley's Painting No. 4 did exactly that, offering a testament to the Lost Generation of World War I - and II. The lack of similar examples of art from World War II is not such a great omission after all. In fact, World War II produced few great works of visual art, just as the poetry of the 1939-1945 conflict never equaled the verse of 1914-1918.
The theme of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 transcends the specific events of the twentieth century, even such an important one as World War II. How the people of the United States conceptualized the industrialized, urban culture which increasingly pervaded every aspect of their lives is the theme of this provocative exhibit.
Wharton H. Esherick, Of a Great City, 1923
The Philadelphia artist Wharton Esherick created a memorable expression of the challenges posed by the sensory overload of modern life. In the wood engraving, Of a Great City, Esherick shows the novelist Theodore Dreiser almost buried by an avalanche of cultural objects, books, music, works of modern art. Below in the concrete canyon is an ant-like stream of humanity. How can we preserve our individuality under such circumstances?
In political terms, the answer was provided by the title of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-fighting program, the New Deal. Bold legislative and economic initiatives were tried, but never a fundamental realignment of political power.
Art in the United States emphasized similar concepts, ideals that espoused the "new", the "efficient," the "visionary." When you look at the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, the first International-style "skyscraper" built in the U.S., you see all these Modernist attributes in place.
Lloyd Ullberg, PSFS Building, Philadelphia, c.1932 - 1933
Yet, when you reflect upon the clean, austere lines and the soaring reach of the PSFS building, you realize that this treasure of American architecture has more in common with the wide-open prairie sky that Georgia O'Keeffe saw than with the European ideals of the Bauhaus.
This is the great lesson of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's superb exhibit. No matter how "thoroughly modern" America became during the first decades of the twentieth century, it remained America First.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 - 1965) Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting, 1922. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 1/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Margaretta S. Hinchman, 1955-96-9.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986) Red and Orange Streak, 1919. Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987-70-3.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, showing works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills and Bones (1943) and From the Lake, No. 3 (1924)
Stuart Davis (American, 1892 - 1964) Something on the Eight Ball, 1953-1954. Oil on canvas, 56 × 45 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Adele Haas Turner and Beatrice Pastorius Turner Memorial Fund, 1954-30-1. © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York
Horace Pippin (American, 1888 - 1946) The Getaway, 1939. Oil on canvas, 24 5/8 x 36 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Daniel W. Dietrich II, 2016-3-3.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Beauford Delaney's Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945. Oil on canvas, 22 x 18 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by The Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation in memory of Joseph C. Bailey and with a grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 1998-3-1
Man Ray (American, 1890 - 1976) A.D. 1914, 1914. Oil on linen: 36 7/8 × 69 3/4 inches (93.7 × 177.2 cm) © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Philadelephia Museum of Art # 1944-90-1 A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1944
Marsden Hartley (American, 1877 -1943) Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 31 5/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949-18-8
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Marsden Hartley's Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915.
Wharton H. Esherick (American, 1887 - 1970), Of a Great City, 1923. Wood engraving, image: 9 15/16 x 6 5/16 inches, sheet: 11 7/16 x 7 1/2 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund from the Carl and Laura Zigrosser Collection, 1979-12-11.
Lloyd Ullberg (American, 1904-1996) PSFS Building, Philadelphia, c.1932 - 1933. Gelatin silver print, image and sheet:10 x 7 3/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund, 1999-121-3.