‘Modern Times: American Art, 1910-1950,’ at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Richard Friswell
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Marcel Duchamp, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2’ (1912), first appeared at the Armory Show (1913). Version #3, painted for a patron/collector is part of the “Modern Times” exhibition.

The ragged shores of America received a wakeup call one day in April, 1913. Shock waves reverberated through a complacent art world on this side of the Atlantic with the opening of the ‘International Exhibition of Modern Art,’ otherwise known as the Armory Show. Three Americans, Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach, and Arthur B. Davies set out to “lead the public taste in art, rather than follow it,” with a three-city tour (New York, Chicago and Boston). The show became an important event in the history of American art, introducing astonished Americans, who were accustomed to realistic art, to the experimental styles of the European avant garde, including Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. And while many pieces selected for viewing by European artists, like Matisse, Gauguin, Pissarro and others were already many years old by that time, their worked electrified public opinion, serving as a catalyst for American artists, sending them scrambling for a new, independent narrative style aimed at creating their own “American artistic language.”

The current exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Modern Times: American Art, 1910-1950, considers that period immediately surrounding the Armory Show’s impact and the decades that followed—in what has come to be known as ‘the modern art movement.’ Rather than assuming a sequential approach to presenting the work of artists from that period, curators focused on parings and groupings to illustrate innovative trends in style and subject matter. The last time the PMA tackled such a comprehensive show of modern artists was 1944, with their emerging collection of Alfred Stieglitz (d. 1946) photographs.

Right: Charles Sheeler, Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting (1922), oil on canvas, 20 x 24″. Bequest of Margaretta S. Hinchman, 1955-96-9.

And, in fact, a significant portion of his innovative, abstract photos were later gifted to the museum, further attracting gifts by such notables as longtime Stieglitz companion and executor, Georgia O’Keefe, as well as Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler and John Marin. These, and acquisitions of other works by Charles Demuth, Morton Schamberg,, Charles Sheeler, Edith Clifford Williams and Man Ray, among others, meant that this current exhibition could be mounted with few borrowed pieces; a fact which underscores the depth and strength of PMA’s modern art collection.

Left: John Sloan, Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York City (1907), oil on canvas 24 x 32″. Gift of Meyer P. Potamkin and Vivian O. Potamkin, 1964-116-5.

The gallery called “Modern Life” features works by members of the “Ash Can school,” otherwise known as the “Eight.” With artist, Robert Henri, a Philadelphia native, as the guiding force behind a movement born in 1908, artists like William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan joined forces to portray everyday life on the streets of New York and other cities. There portrayal of the commonest elements of the world around them flew in the face of Victorian standards for what comprised acceptable painterly subject matter. Specifically, their painting focused on the burgeoning communities of immigrants and dispossessed swelling neighborhoods, sometimes in the heart of the city. Sloan’s painting, Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street (1907), is an unalloyed visual document of life in the Tenderloin district of Manhattan—crowded, class and racially-mixed, overcast skies and mildly foreboding. Sloan later commented that “this canvas has surely caught the atmosphere of the Tenderloin: drab, shabby, happy, sad, and human.” This seemingly spontaneous ‘snapshot’ of quotidian urban existence characterized the “Eight,” an urban painting movement favoring harshly realistic representations of people and places—visual art as probing social commentary.

Right: Georgia O’Keefe, Red and Orange Streak (1919), oil on canvas, 27 x 23″. Bequest of Georgia O’Keefe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987-70-3.

In the “Rhythm, Light, and Sound” gallery, work by artists from the 1910s is gathered, when artists began to experiment with more avant-garde approaches to painting. Artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove delved into abstract forms, rather than realistic representations of their subjects. As O’Keefe noted, “I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way—things I had no words for.” O’Keefe’s painting, Red and Orange Streak (1919), reflects on a western sunset (sunrise?), as bright bands of warm colors cut across a darken horizon.  Memories and emotions figure largely in this interpretive work, transforming a particular place and time (Texas cattle country) into a powerfully lyrical, personal statement, bearing little relationship to nature, per se. While it can’t be specifically said that O’Keefe was responding to lessons learned from the range of abstract paintings shown at the Armory show in that same decade, the sweeping post-Armory trend evidences a transition in form, color and content in the range of American work on display in this exhibition. Jessica Todd Smith, Curator of American Art and this exhibition’s organizer said, “[The show] give voice to the multiple narratives because the evolution and experimentation in the art of this period is especially fluid. The stylistic pluralism, the beautiful chaos of innovation, was a hallmark of the modern American movement.”

Left: Marsden Hartley, Still Life with Fish (1921), oil on canvas 23 x 39″. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949-18-12.

Another section, “Close-Up on Still Life” brings together a number of works that interpret a standard genre in the art world—the still life. The modernists found ‘new ways of seeing’ this conventional subject matter, altering form and color to bring forward notions of unique perception and emotion that would not ordinarily be communicated in a studio arrangement of ordinary objects. Marsden Hartley’s, Still Life with Fish (1921), borrows from Cubism’s lessons taught about flattened perspective, geometric reduction of forms, and uniform color intensity across all planes of the scene. But he adds to this work an a priori freshness, bordering in painterly naïveté, combining bold strokes of color and heavy outlining which would characterize much of his work in years to come. During this period, Hartley was influenced by Cezanne, writing that he (and Whitman) “are the gateway for our modern esthetic development, the prophets of the new time. And like his predecessors, he strived “to voice most of all the imperative need of essential personalism, of direct expression of direct experience,” to be seen in this still life.

Right: Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent Series XX No. 1 (1929), gelatin silver print, image and sheet 4 5/8 x 3 5/8″. From the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1980-128-2.

Photographer, Alfred Stieglitz’s work figures prominently in the curatorial constructs of the current show. Stieglitz inspired so many of the artists represented here, as he both hosted their work in his ‘291’ gallery, and collected their work in abundance, as well. The museum’s rich collection of Stieglitz’s work meant they could reference his work as a preparatory step for many of the thematic comparisons found in the galleries. In the gallery, “Nature Abstracted,” the Stieglitz series photograph, Equivalent Series XX No. 1 (1929), has him pointing his camera to the sky and allowing the random patterns of nature define the composition. The result, a powerful abstraction of nature carried the artistic narrative of emotion and perception as defining elements in the creative process one step further. Innovations in photography were paralleling those in the other visual arts during this period, with artists like Stieglitz, May Ray (Rayograms), Ansel Adams, Charles Sheeler and others breaking new ground.

Left: Willem de Kooning, Seated Woman, c. 1940, oil and charcoal on Masonite, 54 x36″. The Albert M. Greenfield and Elizabeth M. Greenfield Collection, 1974-178-23.

“The Animated Figure” gallery covers a spectrum of images—both painted and sculptural—across the exhibition’s date range of 1910-1950. From early examples of the Symbolism-inspired, nude-filled Daphnes of the Ravine (Arthur B. Davies, 1922), to the stylistic cubist work by Arshile Gorky, Abstraction with a Palette (1931-2). Most of the works selected for the show are clearly rooted in the historically relevant American Modernist period. But a work in the final gallery, that of Willem de Kooning’s Seated Woman (1940), represents a clarion call for a new generation of artists, one that would not emerge in full flower until after World War II, with New York and its post-modern, Abstract Expressionists at its vanguard. This large oil and charcoal painting on Masonite (54 x 36”) encompasses much of what the next generation of action painters would be striving to achieve: evident physicality in the worked surface, unsettling distortion (destructive constructionism?) of the figure, heavy reworking of the layered materials and an unconstrained engagement–bordering on frenzy–with materials and subject matter. During the same period that Seated Woman was produced, de Kooning noted, for example, “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity. I do not think… of art as a situation of comfort.”

And while we can view the assembled works in the Philadelphia Art Museum’s current show, Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950, from the relative comfort that passage of time offers, it is useful to recall that these were perilous years in our history. A rapidly-changing and conflict-wrought world had us raising serious questions about humanity’s future. Urbanization and technical innovation were rapidly reshaping lived experience in real time.

Above: Man Ray, A.D. 1914 (War), 1914, oil on canvas, 37 x 70″. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1944-90-1.

Contemporaneous poet, William Butler Yeats, in his 1919 work, The Second Coming wrote, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold….The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as he offered a prescient vision of “the blood-dimmed tide” that would soon engulf Europe.  American artists were grappling, just as were others throughout the Western world, to find meaningful ways to express frustration, fear, optimism, and visionary clarity in a modern world—one fraught with uncertainty. The works in this exhibition are not merely paintings, photographs and sculptures. They are tangible marks in the shifting sands of history, aimed at finding new language, new modes of thinking, and new forms of expression to engage a globe seemingly plagued by endless upheaval.


By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor

Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Now through September 3, 2018

Catalogue: 144 pages, $35.00

With an emphasis on painting and sculpture made in the United States between 1910 and 1950, this illustrated volume offers a rich introduction to American modernism through the world-class collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The text, which includes previously unpublished archival photos, examines the roles that the museum and the city of Philadelphia played in promoting modernism from its inception. Works by internationally acclaimed artists from the circle of photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, including Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler, are featured here alongside works by artists left outside the mainstream of art history. The book draws visual connections among works by these artists while offering juxtapositions that tell a story of modern American art that is unique to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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