How and when Europe took note of American art.
Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By JAMES GARDNER
‘The Steerage’ (1907) by Alfred Stieglitz
As an American, I’ve never really given much thought to how the rest of the world—by which I mean Europe—viewed American art of the early 20th century. What they thought of such mid-century movements as Abstract Expressionism is well known: The very title of Serge Guilbaut’s paranoid account, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983), succeeds, if nothing else, in encapsulating how he and many other Europeans viewed, and continue to view, the meteoric rise of American culture in the postwar years. That was the first moment when Europeans could no longer console themselves that, whatever America might claim in wealth, might, or sheer numbers, it lacked in culture and that certain something that Old Europe had and we cowboys would never get.
By around 1950 it began to be scandalously apparent, however, that the traditional posture of apprentice to master that most Americans adopted when they went abroad would no longer do, that we had now become the masters of the international avant-garde. But what about the generation or two before the rise of the New York School? Ordinarily, you would have to go to Europe to discover what European curators felt about the art in question; for once, though, they have come to us, mounting the Whitney’s latest offering: Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time. This exhibition is intended for Europeans, and though it now finishes its tour in New York, it originated in Hamburg and continued on to Rotterdam.
The presence of Hopper in the title is somewhat inapt. For though he has more paintings on view than anyone else, he is only one of several dozen artists—some of them very gifted—included in this show. The reason for the title, I suppose, is twofold. First, the Whitney feels it needs to mount an exhibition with Hopper in the title roughly every two years. Second, though it would not be fair to say that the Europeans are crazy for Hopper (as they are for, say, Jerry Lewis or Paul Auster), he is unique among prewar artists in that some Europeans have actually heard of him, whereas they are unlikely to have heard of many, or perhaps any, of the other artists in this show.
It is quite remarkable that almost no one beyond the borders of the United States collects or studies anything that was produced within the United States much before 1945. The only exceptions are artists such as Copley, Whistler, and Cassatt, who lived much of their lives abroad and, for all intents and purposes, were European painters. But unless I am much mistaken, you will be hard put to find many paintings by Winslow Homer or Frederic Edwin Church outside the borders of the continental 48. Regarding work produced after World War II, however, everything changes. Many a European of means would merrily chuck the ancestral Canaletto or Poussin for a drip painting by Jackson Pollock, to say nothing of a multiple by Jeff Koons or a deed of title to one of Matthew Barney’s punitively interminable videos.
The position of American artists in the early years of the 20th century was an odd one. Though they obediently took their marching orders from European Modernists, New York City, through which most of them passed and in which many chose to remain, was, by virtue of its subways and elevateds, its skyscrapers and electric lights, the most modern city in the world. And so, even as our artists had front-row seats to the most exciting evolutionary development since the invention of agriculture, they were compelled to describe it in a formal language invented by others in the Old World.
The one area in which we effortlessly held our own was—perhaps not coincidentally—the newest and most mechanical of the arts: photography. And perhaps because, by its very nature, the medium lacked deeply entrenched traditions, powerful artists like Stieglitz and Steichen, Walker Evans and Aaron Siskind (all of whom are included in the exhibition) were able to use it as skillfully and inventively as any of their European contemporaries. Indeed, in a work like “The Steerage” (1907), Alfred Stieglitz may fairly lay claim to having invented journalistic photography, and in the process being the first true Photographer of Modern Life, to paraphrase Baudelaire.
As for the paintings that make up most of this exhibition—which also includes sculpture, drawings, and prints—there were, indeed, eminent artists among us in the first half of the 20th century, but they were fewer and farther between than we might wish to believe, and the output of even the best of them was apt to be spotty and inconsistent. One of the greatest American painters of the period was surely George Bellows, but he is represented by few works here, and not his best. “Introducing John L. Sullivan” is a cartoonish depiction of an announcer standing in a boxing ring before the match begins. And though charming and accomplished, this work bumps up against the limitations that beset other painters related to the Ashcan School: George Luks, Everett Shin, and William J. Glackens. Modern life is depicted in a fashion far more demotic and working-class than anything ever attempted by their European counterparts, whether the Impressionists or their sundry successors. But the subject matter almost always gets the better of the form, with results that are often endearing, but hardly likely, then or now, to impress Europeans. By this point, towards the end of his all-too-brief career, Bellows’s paint texture had lost that pungent and greasy plenitude that was exemplified in earlier works. One wishes that the Europeans could have seen such earlier masterpieces as “Blue Snow the Battery” from 1910, or “Blue Morning” from the year before.
In the section called “Experiment and Abstraction,” we find the painter Max Weber fashioning a very skilled and creditable example of Synthetic Cubism in a work improbably titled “Chinese Restaurant” (1915). Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Marsden Hartley also do us proud, even though it must be said that they—more than any other painters in the show—are working in a European idiom that the Europeans deployed with greater originality. Whether Georgia O’Keeffe should be included in this section is debatable, but it cannot be denied that—even after her limitations, mainly regarding paint texture, are acknowledged—she was an artist of striking power, almost as potent as the mythology that has developed around her.
One area where American artists achieved true originality was in depiction of the machine aesthetic. Surely they were preceded in this goal by such European artists as Fernand Léger and the Futurists; but Charles Sheeler’s “River Rouge Plant” (1932) is almost Poussinesque in its geometric punctilio. I would also draw attention to an exquisite view of Pittsburgh by Elsie Driggs, who, at least on the basis of this masterpiece, deserves to be better known.
Which brings us finally to the star of the show: Edward Hopper himself—a good painter, to be sure, but one who has never charmed me as much as he appears to charm everyone else, especially the Europeans. For them, notwithstanding his having spent most of his life in Greenwich Village, he has provided the one imperishable depiction of l’Amérique profonde, the America of the hinterland, of small towns in the Middle West. For them he seems also to have captured something of the wordless, suffocating despair of modern times. And often enough he hits home. But there is always something pallid and pedestrian in the formal textures of the works on view at the Whitney, as well as in their composition, that leaves me dissatisfied.
I am not sure how this show was received by the Germans and Dutch who flocked to see it in Hamburg and Rotterdam. Perhaps it instilled in them a new interest in the work of our American forebears. But nothing in it can have prepared them for the outburst of power that would be unleashed in the years after 1945.
James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).
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