By Chad Nance
There was a time in the history of art and culture, particularly in the Western world, where the precepts, dogmas, techniques, and preconceptions of the past had to be thrown down upon the altar of change. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the world was in convulsions as the animosities of the past met head-on into the industrial revolution, turning warfare into a mechanical meat grinder. The vast factories of the new machine ate up human beings at a slower rate than warfare, while feeding off of everyday cruelty in a way that both invigorated and stunned the people of the time. Out of those grim cultural and geopolitical realities emerged several generations of iconoclastic artists who chose to roll the bones of chance and transformation. Out of this time comes “Modernism.” From visual art and literature to theater and music, the changes and clashes in the world required a new set of eyes- a new way to communicate. On Friday February 7, the Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition that, with thoughtfulness and depth, presents the viewer with a sharp vision of the very dawn of the modern world (particularly modern America on the assent) in a way that is accessible, but in no way insults the intelligence or the pallet.
American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell is as a national touring exhibition from the Brooklyn Museum. It should be noted, however, that the installation is curated by Reynolda House’s Elizabeth Chew and her staff. They have carefully chosen the way the show is displayed and organized, and viewing it as intended is highly recommended.
The installation begins with Cubism, in particular with a painting by American abstract artist Stuart Davis. His “Famous First” (1959) is an apt and thoughtful beginning for the show. Davis was a member of the AshCan School, an unofficial group of artists with similar training and affinities that came together, in part, to inject a sense of journalistic realism into art by vividly depicting the everyday lives of urban people at the turn of the Century. This does not mean that they limited themselves to “realistic” depictions, rather they sought to capture the emotional, sociological, and sometimes political truth of the images they shared. Part of this group were also known as “The Eight” and this artistic movement would spawn iconic paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “The El Station” (1908) and George Bellows’ “Both Members of the Club” (1909). Ironically, while Davis did produce stunning paintings in the AshCan style such as “Portrait of a Man” and “City Snow Scene”(1911- Sold a Christie’s in 2012 for $1.2mil) it is one of his abstract paintings that leads off “The Moderns.” “Famous First”(1958), painted near the end of Stuart’s career, is a work which simply bristles with chaos under tight control. Draftsman-like precision and a confident use of color and contrast give the painting true depth and makes one wonder at the aesthetic meditation on display.
“Famous First” exists because of techniques pioneered by earlier works in the exhibition such as Gallatin’s “Composition”(1937). Gallatin deconstructs a violin into its geometric components then lays them out like a slightly scrambled collage that only exists in the hard reality of two dimensions. By the use of understated color that exudes good taste, Gallatin allows the eye to rest from the kind of aggressive color palette seen in other Cubist paintings. Without the heavy lifting of processing depth of field, the eye and the mind are allowed to meditate on each shape, permitting a careful examination of form and space itself.
The abstraction of Cubism along with the more representative realism of AshCan can be found in Zorach’s “Memories of my California Childhood”(1921), clearly as personal as any work in the show (besides possibly Joseph Stella’s “The Virgin”(1926). In “Memories” Zorach used an earth tone palette and realistic human forms along with the two-dimensional, flat-image approach of Cubism. This creates a haunting representation of burgeoning adolescence that calls to mind the brooding fear of the unknown found in Grimm’s Fairy Tales while feeling as if the viewer is looking at the image reflected into a slightly broken mirror.