How and when Europe took note of American art.
Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By JAMES GARDNER
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).