America’s Cool Modernism


If your penchant is for figures in a landscape, or even just figures, then steer clear of Oxford for the next five months, or, at least the exhibition currently showing at the Ashmolean. Hard-edged, geometric cityscapes fight with hard-edged rural scenes of barns, silos and grain elevators. There are some softer abstractions from the brushes of Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove, and one Grant Wood early lithograph, before he took up painting, portrays a landscape of rolling hills and trees, a scene which reappears later in his oils, particularly Young Corn and Fall Plowing, owned by the tractor manufacturer John Deere, featuring an old-fashioned, horse-drawn plough. There is an evocative aquatint by Martin Lewis showing an automobile stopped in a wintry scene at night, with a bank of snow and a telegraph pole lit up by the headlights. It comes as no surprise that the title is Which Way?

The only figures to appear in any of the works, other than in the car, are by Edward Hopper, who inserts tiny lone figures into his etchings of life in the city, and one solitary tenant into the window of a brownstone block of apartments, called From Williamsburg Bridge, painted in 1928, and a scurrying man in Manhattean Bridge Loop. In a late work by Charles Sheeler entitled Bucks County Barn, one can just glimpse a couple of Holstein cattle amongst the angular buildings, the only signs of life. The black and white photographer Paul Strand is well-represented by a number of abstractions, portraying ordinary objects and the shadows they cast. With Charles Sheeler, he made a 10-minute film Manhatta in 1920, captioned by lines of Walt Whitman poetry, which, in a way, foresaw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis seven years later, and explored the city in slow camera pans, including marshalling yards and the docking of SS Aquitania in New York harbour. This was shown at the Paul Strand exhibition at the V&A exactly a year ago. Strand’s mentor was the influential, avant-garde art dealer and theorist, Alfred Stieglitz, himself also a photographer and partner of Georgia O’Keefe, who painted a view of the East River from the Shelton Hotel, which could have been a still from Strand’s film. Stieglitz pointed his camera the other way from his window, and showed massive concrete canyons, with buildings under construction in the distance.

Charles Demuth, whose iconic I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is the highlight at the very epicentre of the exhibition, also painted three other cityscapes, one with the intriguing title Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M, which is presumably mirrored text for M. Sampson Paige. M. Sampson, but who he is remains a mystery. Another poser is the Rue du Singe qui Pêche, painted whilst in Paris, in which parts of graphic signs are depicted, with some decypherable, such as Hotel, Tabac, and Vins, and some not. Skyscrapers, bridges and factories loom impersonally in the city, accentuating the de-humanising and isolating presence of soaring architecture, overwhelming anything on a human scale. Apart from the buildings, machinery and industrial scenes are popular with these so-called precisionist artists, with others dipping their American toes into the European waters of cubism, such as Edward Steichen’s Sunflower, and Sound by E E Cummings, his name in unfamiliar upper and lower case, and, unbeknownst to me, a painter, before he dropped capital letters completely and concentrated on poetry. George Ault’s New York Night, No. 2 can be described as eerily poetic, depicting an empty, car-less city street at night in the fog, with only two street lights in the mid-distance, and the silhouette of an unlit shop-sign protruding from a darkened building. The only signs of life are a few lit windows high up in the monolithic grey block. Ault studied at the Slade and St John’s Wood School of Art in London, before returning to the States, where he painted more oody nocturnal landscapes. There are three Edward Hopper paintings of New York, which have never been seen in this country before, and a clutch of his etchings, as part of the eighty works on display, with twenty-seven pieces on loan from the Terra Foundation of American Art and a further 18 from the Met in New York, many of which have never left the USA at all. All in all, a small, but perfectly-formed exhibition, which introduces a British audience to these pioneers of modern American art, and fills in some gaps left by the America After the Fall exhibition at the Royal Academy last year.



Until 22 July 2018


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