Wednesday, August 14, 2013

American Modern at MOMA

American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, August 17, 2013 to January 26, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Upon entering American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one has the sensation of having walked onto the pages of an art book devoted to the masterpieces of early twentieth century America.

Almost immediately, Edward Hopper's signature work from 1925, House by the Railroad, looms into view. Nearby are photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, as well as one of Stieglitz himself, taken by Ansel Adams in 1938. Venture further into the exhibit galleries and a display of key works from Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, Charles Sheeler's "Precisionist" masterpiece, American Landscape, and the flowering sensuality of Georgia O'Keeffe's An Orchid greet the eye.

American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe is a major exhibition that fulfills both its premise and its promise. Yet two interrelated factors need to be emphasized in order to grasp the significance of the exhibition. First, almost all of the art works on display are from MOMA's collection. Many of them were very early acquisitions, dating to the 1930's and 1940's, when a vigorous movement to define the character of American art was in full swing.

These were the same years when MOMA's dynamic director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., successfully asserted MOMA's leadership role over the international modern art movement, a position it has never lost. Barr's pioneering presentations of the art of the Surrealists, Picasso and Matisse at MOMA's rented exhibition space during the 1930's gave the appearance of shifting priorities away from the contemporary focus on American art.

In 1939, the year the museum found its permanent lodgings on W. 53rd St., MOMA presented a celebratory exhibition. The catalog to Art in Our Time set forth MOMA's mandate "to present to the public the living art of our time and its sources." That meant American art as well as Picasso. MOMA had in fact mounted a retrospective of Hopper's paintings in 1933 as well as acquiring works by other contemporary American artists.

American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe thus corrects a misperception about MOMA's role in shaping modern American art. During its formative years, MOMA played an important part in the dialog on the identity of American art. This exhibition also shows that diversity was the defining aspect of art in the United States during the 1920's and 1930's. After surveying the range of artistic works on view, it is misleading to apply a generic label to them such as "American Scene Painting" or "Precisionism."

The exhibition title is not particularly helpful in this regard. "Hopper to O'Keeffe" implies a process of insight and innovation, a path breaking moment of discovery leading to further epiphanies by second-generation artists. From the title, one might assume that American art had evolved from Realism (Hopper) to the first stirrings of Abstract art (O'Keeffe) in an almost pre-ordained progression.

The paintings on display in the MOMA exhibition reveal a different sequence of creation. Abstract art, influenced by pre-World War I Expressionism and Cubism, often preceded realist-style work by these "American moderns."

Arthur Dove (American, 1880-1946)
Oil on canvas
25 x 35" (63.5 x 88.9 cm)
Gift of Duncan Phillips, 1941

Only the career of Arthur Dove (1880-1946), continued to evolve in a consistent Abstract style. Although his titles usually suggest elements from the natural world, Dove was a courageous pioneer of Abstract art. But the life-long support of Alfred Stieglitz and Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Gallery in Washington D.C., was crucial to his survival as an artist.

For other "American moderns," the creative path remained grounded in Realism or often shifted back and forth from representational to Abstract art - and sometimes back again. Two of the key works on view in the MOMA exhibit are particularly noteworthy in this respect.

Georgia O'Keeffe
(American, 1887-1986)
Evening Star, No. III
Watercolor on paper mounted on board
8 7/8 x 11 7/8" (22.7 x 30.4 cm)
MOMA, Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Straus Fund, 1958

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) were close contemporaries and though O'Keeffe lived far longer, she painted only a few years beyond Hopper's death because of failing eyesight. In no way was she a "later" painter. Hopper's House by the Railroad, when compared with O’Keeffe's Evening Star, No. III, might appear to be an earlier work, rooted in the nineteenth century. In fact, Hopper painted it nearly a decade after O'Keeffe evoked the desert sky in her astonishing water color. During the 1920's, O'Keeffe embraced a more realistic or Precisionist style in her cityscapes and landscapes.

A comparison of a photograph and a painting by Charles Sheeler confirm the impracticality of trying to confine works from this period in a straightjacket of schematic theory.

Sheeler (1883-1965), a native of Pennsylvania, frequently painted in Bucks County, a then-rural area situated between New York City and Philadelphia. Many of the leading lights of Broadway like Oscar Hammerstein escaped to country homes in Bucks County. Sheeler's Bucks County Barn, painted in 1932, is an image of the bucolic simplicity that would appeal to anyone seeking a respite from "the Great White Way."

Charles Sheeler
(American, 1883-1965)
Bucks County Barn
Oil on board
23 7/8 x 29 7/8" (60.6 x 75.9 cm)
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1935


Charles Sheeler (American, 1883-1965)
White Barn, Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8 x 9 11/16" (19.4 x 24.6 cm)
MOMA, Anonymous gift, 1941

Sheeler's earlier photograph, White Barn, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has the opposite effect. Rather than calming the spirits of a jaded urbanite, it displays a top-to-bottom expanse of panel and plaster wall, a barrier to both understanding and pleasure. There is no skyline visible in the photo, no sense of depth or "elbow room." Without any recognizable details, viewers are at a loss as to what Sheeler photographed. Only a very close study reveals that the v-shaped object under the window shutters at the bottom of the photo are the tail-feathers of a chicken investigating a small pile of hay. This is realism of a type but hardly "Precisionism."

Sheeler's White Barn shares an element in common with Hopper's House by the Railroad. The buildings in both pictures are isolated from their surroundings. This is particularly the case of Hopper's painting, where the railroad tracks in the foreground dramatically cut the Victorian mansion away from its foundation. House by the Railroad appears to be in process of being moved to a new site and, indeed, it has been - away from the mainstream of modern life.

Hopper's House by the Railroad and Sheeler's Bucks County barns are cut-off from all human contact. There is not a person in sight. It is an element that these works share with the majority of the other paintings and photos on display. It is easy to read into these works that the absence of human protagonists is a sign of the alienation of the artists from the soulless, urban environment of modern America. Too easy.

Charles Sheeler
(American, 1883-1965)
American Landscape

Oil on canvas
24 x 31" (61 x 78.8 cm)
MOMA, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1934

Sheeler's American Landscape traced its origin to publicity photos of the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan. Sheeler was contracted by Ford to take the photographs in 1927. But he was so impressed by what he saw that his comments sound as though they were written for him by Henry Ford himself.

"Our factories," Sheeler wrote, "are our substitute for religious expression."

With Hopper, we are on more uncertain ground when the issues of human sensibility are considered. Hopper described his paintings as reflecting "the loneliness of a big city." Whether the people in Hopper's paintings were lonely too is hard to say. Hopper was a political conservative and a bit of a crank. He was tight-lipped when it came to discussing his work. In the case of the woman bending over in Night Windows with only her behind visible, that just might be a private joke of Hopper's on opinionated art critics.

Hopper's etchings are a different matter. Hopper was the greatest American practitioner of etching during the twentieth century and he did not disguise his feelings in these striking works. When we see forlorn figures hunched next to the wall of dilapidated building, we don't really need to read the etching's title, The Lonely House, to comprehend the inner turmoil of these people. Likewise, the overhead view of a man trudging down a deserted street in Night Shadows is an indelible image of human "aloneness."

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967)
Night Shadows
1921, published December 1924
plate: 6 15/16 x 8 1/8" (17.6 x 20.7 cm); sheet: 9 7/16 x 11 1/4" (24 x 28.6 cm)
Publisher: The New Republic, New York
Printer: Peter Platt, New York
Edition: approximately 500
MOMA, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1940

Comparisons between Hopper's etchings and those of Rembrandt are hard to resist. Hopper's skill in this medium was of the highest order, which makes his decision to cease printmaking after 1923 a cause for regret. But unlike Rembrandt's etchings, there are no images of Christ blessing the multitudes in Hopper's prints. There is nothing reassuring in the plight of these solitary souls adrift in the modern city. Hopper had exhausted the potential of etchings to portray the "quiet desperation" of humanity, so curtailing his production of prints was perhaps a wise choice after all.

The crisis - or rather collapse - of religious values in the American urban centers extended to the towns and cities of the nation's heartland. Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) came from an Ohio clergy family but dissatisfaction with conventional religious practice led him to reject his Christian faith. Instead, he was motivated to invest his scenes of nature with a numinous, magical power. After he returned from military service in World War I, Burchfield shifted to paintings of dilapidated mill towns and deserted street scenes. His work, realist in technique, proclaimed "after the fall."

Charles Burchfield (American, 1893-1967)
Rogues' Gallery
Watercolor and pencil on paper
13 7/8 x 19 7/8" (35.2 x 50.6 cm)
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1935

Later, during the 1940's, Burchfield reverted to the symbolism and mysticism of his breakthrough years, 1916-1917. His redirected quest for meaning is readily apparent in his 1916 painting, Rogues' Gallery. Here the silhouettes of steep-roofed farm buildings point toward heaven while ripening sunflowers twist, turn and ultimately sag in surrender to gravity and mortality.

The focusing and refocusing of technique and style, Abstract art to Realism and back again, was characteristic of American art before World War II. The "invasion" of European émigrés, artists and writers, during the late 1930's and 1940's, gave a decisive impetus to the rise of Abstract Expressionism after 1945. "Ab-Ex" as practiced by the New York School was hailed as the definitive American art of the twentieth century. But its triumph was short-lived. Realism, especially when invested with the psychological insight of the best of Hopper's work and that of Andrew Wyeth, was simply too valid a form of artistic expression to simply surrender the field to Abstract art.

Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917-2009)
Christina's World1948
Tempera on panel
32 1/4 x 47 3/4" (81.9 x 121.3 cm)
MOMA, Purchase, 1949

When we see Wyeth's Christina's World in company with its fore-runners, the significance of this hugely popular work is powerfully reinforced. The crippled woman in Wyeth's painting is dragging herself up the slope to a somber, solitary dwelling. It is Hopper's House by the Railroad and The Lonely House, Sheeler's Bucks County barns and the Great Plains shack in a Dorothea Lange photo also on view.
Wyeth's Christina is clawing her way Home - a very real place in the "American Scene," be it ever so humble.


Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory Image: Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) House by the Railroad 1925
oil on canvas 24 x 29" (61 x 73.7 cm MOMA Given anonymously, 1930