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Around the galleries

The flowering of modern art in America

— December 2013

Associated media

Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Christina’s World (1948). Tempera on panel. 81.9x121.3cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. ©Andrew Wyeth

Stephen Bury explores a lost world at 'American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe' at New York's MoMA

The first painting to enter the collection of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925), where a railway track, viewed from below, obscures the bottom of a large, overly ornate Victorian three-storey house. There is no sign of people in or around it, and no activity on the railway track. Why is the railway track here? Where does it go to? Where are the inhabitants?

This work was given ‘anonymously’ by Stephen C. Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who had joined the MoMA board of trustees on 25 October  1929. It is now on view as part of the ‘American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe’ exhibition, curated by Kathy Curry and Esther Adler at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although many artists are represented in this exhibition, there is a focus on five, all of whom had major solo shows at MoMA in the first 16 years of its existence – Charles Burchfield (1930), Stuart Davis (1945), Edward Hopper (1933),  Georgia O’Keeffe (1946) and Charles Sheeler (1939).

A New Yorker would expect to see an exhibition of this subject matter not at MoMA but at the Whitney Museum of American Art (and indeed the MoMA show overlaps with a Hopper Drawings exhibition and an American Legends  series there). It is the purpose of the exhibition to show how central collecting American modernists was to the Museum of Modern Art in its early years. In the catalogue, curator Esther Adler explores how MoMA’s collecting swerved in the 1930s from American modernism to international modernism, and from figuration to abstraction.

The reasons for this are complex but include the establishment by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of its American Wing in 1924 and fierce competition from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), who first set up the Whitney Studio Club at 8 West 8th Street, where the Whitney Museum of American Art was later first established in 1929. And this perhaps explains why there are serious gaps in MoMA’s modern American collections – no Elsie Driggs and no Morton Schamberg (despite the Dadaist thrust of his machine imagery), for example.

But for a while the importance of 20th-century American art for MoMA was undeniable. Indeed, it was MoMA’s director Alfred Barr who popularized the term ‘precisionist’ as early as 1927 and promoted the artists. It is a term largely eschewed by the curators of this current exhibition. The Precisionists, sometimes also called the Immaculates , who included Georg Ault, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Louis Lozowick, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer and Joseph Stella, were never a formal group but shared a pictorial style of simple, often geometric shapes, distinct outlines and avoidance of detail. They were influenced by the sharp focus photographs of Paul Strand and the abstract cityscape photographs of Walker Evans. Other photographers included in this exhibition are Ralph Steiner, Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott (an Atget-like  Charles Lane between West and Washington Streets, Manhattan, 1938), Ansel Adams (a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz in his gallery, An American Place, 1938), Margaret Bourke-White ,  Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange,  Clarence John Laughlin, Man Ray,   Paul Outerbridge, Edward Steichen,   Ralph Steiner (American Rural Baroque, 1930) and Edward Weston (abstract close-ups of a shell and a pepper, 1927 and 1930).

Sheeler appears both as painter and photographer. His gelatin silver print, White Barn, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (1914-17) is a frontal shot taken so close to the barn that you can get no sense of its structure or that it is even a barn. His later painting Bucks County Barn (1932) (probably not the same barn) has a very different composition but to a similar effect: the farm buildings, almost abstract shapes, straddle the central two-thirds of the painting. Again there are no people.

The Precisionists’ subjects of choice were American cityscapes (with their skyscrapers and suspension bridges), and landscapes where industrialization and the flight to the city were effecting huge changes. Despite borrowings from and parallels to Futurism’s   strident rhetoric of the machine, the geometries of Cubism and Purism (the latter on show concurrently in MoMA’s Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes), Bauhaus  photography and the Neue Sachlichkeit   or New Objectivity, the Precisionists stress their American context, and their right to be the artists of this American century, whether it is of the new industrialization and commercialization of life or their impact on traditional life and landscape.  Sheeler’s American Landscape (1930), a gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1934, is not a painting of fields and barns: there is a river but it is the foreground for the largest industrial complex at the time, the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, constructed 1917–28 and occupying an area of approximately 1 mile by 1½  miles. No employees are visible though smoke comes out of a very tall factory chimney. Even Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948), despite its rural nature and the rare figure, registers a loss: Christina, half-prone on the earth, looks back, Eurydice-like, at the barn and farmhouse on the high horizon, as if in sad farewell.

The exhibition has very little wall or caption text (and the catalogue is predominantly a collection of plates too), although there is excellent audio coverage on the website and app. It is installed in the second-floor galleries, which have quite low ceilings: the walls are painted non-white and the hanging avoids the single line, as if the exhibition were taking place in the 1930s. I started to imagine what it would look like in the cavernous ‘white cube’ sixth-floor galleries or next to the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the permanent collection.  'American Modern'  feels like a nostalgic look back to another lost world.

The exhibition catalogue,American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, by Kathy Curry and Esther Adler; edited by David Frankel is published in the USA by Museum of Modern Art, New York, and outside the USA by Thames & Hudson, London, 2013. 143 pp., 154 colour and duotone illus, £30.00, US$45.00 (hardback). ISBN 9780870708527


Stephen Bury
Frick Art Reference Library, New York
Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian

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