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.