Shock of the new
An American Modernism
New York City’s Armory Show of 1913 was the first major exhibition of modernist art on American soil, and the city has been associated with modernism ever since. Today, perhaps only Paris rivals New York as a center for modernist art. But from 1907 on, one figure began exhibiting works by Europeans in recognition of new aesthetics entering into the art world, while also making major contributions himself in the realms of photography. That figure is Alfred Stieglitz, and he and other modernists — European, American, and Latin American — rose quickly in the early 20th century to become giants in the art world. New York was not the only city promoting modernist artists in the U.S., but the confluence there was great: Auguste Rodin (whose first U.S. show was at 291, Stieglitz’s Fifth Avenue gallery), George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Henri, and Andrew Dasburg all achieved some recognition and all were included in the Armory Show. New York was a primary location for the exchange of ideas that drove the various movements associated with modernism. But if New York was primary, what was secondary? Could a small contingent of artists in a rural state also become as vital to the story of modernism in America as metropolitan New York?
The answer is an unconditional “Yes!” That state is New Mexico, where Henri, Dasburg, and others ventured in the first few decades of the 1900s, some establishing permanent residences, others just passing through. But few were unaffected by what they found here, enthralled as they were by the landscapes, the skies, the peoples and cultures. To deny New Mexico its place in the narrative would be to deny a critical component of modernist art. The exhibition
An American Modernism, which opens at the New Mexico Museum of Art on Friday, Oct. 2, makes this clear. The show is a broad treatment of the subject of modernist art in the U.S., based primarily on works from the museum’s collection, but among its many depictions of place, New Mexico is well-represented. “What I’m fascinated by is this quest to figure out what is an American modernism,” Museum of Art curator Kate Ware told Pasatiempo. “To me, it’s that questing that brings these artists here.” An American Modernism is part of the Fall of Modernism ,a citywide exhibition series comprising shows at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and several local galleries including Gerald Peters Gallery, Matthews Gallery, and Winterowd Fine Art. The O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art are doing joint ticketing for the run of An American Modernism and From New York to New Mexico: Masterworks of American Modernism From the Vilcek Foundation Collection, which opens on Friday, Sept. 25 at the O’Keeffe.
The exhibit is arranged in terms of ideas, movements, and influences on modernist art, such as the rise of industry. This last theme is represented by Louis Lozowick’s untitled lithograph from 1933 depicting freight trains converging on an urban landscape, and John Marin’s energetic depiction of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1913, “an homage to American engineering,” Ware said. “America is coming into its own after World War I and a lot of the Europeans, too, are part of this.” Lozowick, for example, emigrated from Ukraine in 1906. Other works in this section of the exhibit include photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s image of factory-produced munitions from 1938 and photographer Berenice Abbott’s City Arabesque, Wall Street, New York, also from 1938, a bird’s-eye view of Lower Manhattan that hints at the city’s immensity. Photography is a strong feature of the exhibit, in part because it’s Ware’s area of expertise along with the modernist period in general. Photographs by Paul Strand and Edward Weston feature in a section of the exhibit that deals with the theme of nature and modernism. One, a landscape by Strand, was taken outside of Santa Fe, but the section also includes one of Stieglitz’s dark and mysterious images of poplars made near his family home in Lake George in New York. Georgia O’Keeffe’s
Dark and Lavender Leaves from 1931, also a Lake George composition, exhibits a somber color scheme, contrasting with the bright, pastel tones of her New Mexico landscapes. “O’Keeffe didn’t love Lake George, but she did that work there and it was about that place: ‘I’m here. This is what I see. I’m translating that experience,’ ” Ware said. “She was using the modernist language, not just painting descriptively.” More than 50 works by O’Keeffe are on display in the museum’s exhibition O’Keeffe in Process, on view through Jan. 17, 2016.
Near the start of the show is a timeline tracing the rise of modernism from 1900 to 1940. “It’s to give people a sense of what was going on internationally in history as well as in art history,” Ware said. “Modernism predates the dates in the show. There’s some pieces from the late 1910s, but it’s primarily works from the 1920s and ’30s. That was that time between the wars when American artists were really trying to define modernism.”
A couple of the circles that were actively engaged by the question of defining American modernism included Stieglitz’s and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s. Luhan was a patron of the arts who hosted a number of influential writers
and artists at her home in Taos, including Marsden Hartley and Ansel Adams. “Photographers like Adams and Beaumont Newhall were trying to construct the history of American photography. Adams was printing glass negatives of Timothy O’Sullivan’s pictures of the West and of the Civil War. He was looking back and asking what is genuinely ours.” Hartley, Adams, Dasburg, and others lent a wild spirit to their renditions of Southwestern topographies, which could, in the case of Dasburg, be abstracted compositions. “Geography of the country was an important possibility for what could be artistic subject matter,” Ware said. Dasburg’s Sangre
de Cristo, a watercolor from the early 1930s, is a landscape of swirling gestural brushstrokes that presages Abstract Expressionism. Its energy evokes a sense of New Mexico’s temperamental moods. An untitled
What I’m fascinated by is this quest to figure out what is an American modernism. To me, it’s that questing that brings these artists here. — curator Kate Ware
Andrew Dasburg: Sangre de Cristo, circa 1933, watercolor; top, Cady Wells: Untitled, 1938, watercolor; opposite page, Marsden Hartley: El Santo, 1919, oil on canvas; all images courtesy the New Mexico Museum of Art
Berenice Abbott: City Arabesque, 1938, gelatin silver print; above left, Georgia O’Keeffe: Spring Tree No. 1, 1945, oil on canvas; opposite
page, Raymond Jonson: Design in Flower, 1933, graphite on paper