Modern Times

A sur­vey of Amer­i­can modernism, 1910 to 1950, through se­lect works from the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - By Rochelle Bel­sito

A sur­vey of Amer­i­can modernism, 1910 to 1950, through se­lect works from the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, the Amer­i­can land­scape ex­pe­ri­enced wide­spread changes in cul­ture, eco­nomics, so­ci­ety and tech­nol­ogy. there were fresh philoso­phies as artists, au­thors and other lu­mi­nar­ies be­gan to mimic the Euro­pean no­tion of sa­lons by cre­at­ing their own gath­er­ing places to dis­cuss art, mu­sic, books and more. For these ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined, it was also about finding a dis­tinct voice to com­ment on the times, places and no­tions—both per­ilous and up­lift­ing.

In the exhibition Modern Times: Amer­i­can Art 19101950 at the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art, more than 135 paint­ings and sculp­ture from the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion will be on view along­side 14 loan pieces to sur­vey Amer­i­can modernism dur­ing some of its most cel­e­brated decades.

With the ma­jor­ity of the art com­ing from the mu­seum’s of­fer­ings—that, prior to prints, draw­ings and pho­tog­ra­phy, num­bers to nearly 600 modern works—the show also looks at modernism in Philadelphia, in­clud­ing the artists of the re­gion and the mu­seum’s role.

In 1949, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant do­na­tions of modern art was made to the mu­seum—at the time they were con­tem­po­rary artists who had yet to prove their value and

longevity.the gift of 30 paint­ings and more than 100 works on pa­per came from the Al­fred Stieglitz col­lec­tion by Ge­or­gia O’ke­effe, who was ap­pointed as the ex­ecu­tor of his es­tate. Many years later, O’ke­effe do­nated four of her im­por­tant early paint­ings that came to the mu­seum af­ter her death. There also was the es­tab­lish­ment of the Al­fred Stieglitz Cen­ter by Dorothy Nor­man, who be­tween 1968 and her death in 1997 do­nated more than 1,500 pho­to­graphs .to­day, 90 per­cent of the mu­seum’s mod­ernist hold­ings have come from gift or be­quest.

Jessica Todd Smith, the mu­seum’s Susan Gray Detweiler Cu­ra­tor of Amer­i­can Art and cu­ra­tor of the exhibition, says, “in de­vel­op­ing the check­list, I tried to fo­cus on works of art that high­light modernism that peo­ple might know… i then tried to ex­pand the con­ver­sa­tion to Africanamer­i­can artists, Philadelphia artists, women, modernists work­ing in a va­ri­ety of me­dia.the fo­cus is paint­ing, but it also includes sculp­ture and works on pa­per—prints, draw­ings and pho­to­graphs—as well as a few ex­am­ples of cos­tumes, tex­tiles and dec­o­ra­tive arts in part to make the point that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary el­e­ments of art that were be­ing de­vel­oped at this time were per­va­sive across me­dia.”

This va­ri­ety in medi­ums is one of the hall­marks of modernism, as artists felt un­re­stricted in their cre­ativ­ity. they forged their own styles and sub­jects, some that were re­flec­tive of their times, as well as those that pushed be­yond the vis­ual to emo­tion­ally charged works of art. this dis­par­ity across what the modernists were mak­ing al­lowed Smith to delve into seven the­matic cat­e­gories for the exhibition.

The first sec­tion of the show, “Modern Life,” “tries to con­tex­tu­al­ize what pe­riod of time we’re look­ing at and speak to some of the so­cial and cul­tural changes dur­ing that pe­riod,” Smith ex­plains.the fo­cus is artists who were in­flu­enced by ev­ery­day life and moder­nity, with many Ash­can School works be­ing ex­am­ples in­clud­ing two by John Sloan: the 1907 paint­ing Sixth Av­enue and Thir­ti­eth Street and the circa 1926 piece The White Way.

“It’s a fun com­par­i­son to kick things off be­cause just look­ing at these two paint­ings helps make the point at how many things are chang­ing in this time pe­riod,” says Smith. “in the early one there is a horse-drawn car­riage, and the sec­ond one a trol­ley car.”

Thomas Hart Ben­ton’s small study Bur­lesque is an­other ex­am­ple. De­picted

is a dancer on stage per­form­ing in can­can style garb, which is a nod to the grow­ing in­ter­est in the cul­tural scene of the 1920s, when men and women alike took to the nightlife. “this paint­ing is about the jit­ter­bug and pro­hi­bi­tion,” Smith ex­plains, “and I think it’s a theme that re­ally en­gaged a num­ber of dif­fer­ent artists at the time.”

Themes, such as “Rhythm, Light, and Sound” and “Modern Pal­ette,” delve into the com­po­si­tional el­e­ments of mod­ernist works.the for­mer ex­plores the con­cept of ab­strac­tion, while the lat­ter em­pha­sizes how color was used in new ways, with a par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on the Stieglitz Cir­cle and the con­nec­tion to the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts.

One of the most rec­og­nized works in the “Rhythm, Light, and Sound” seg­ment is Paint­ing No. 4 (A Black Horse) by Mars­den Hart­ley, who painted across sub­jects and is rep­re­sented in a num­ber of the show’s themes. ac­cord­ing to Smith, the work, with its bold pri­mary colors and de­fined forms, uses the aes­thetic prin­ci­ples of the modernists, in­clud­ing color and geo­met­ric shapes, in a sym­bol­ist man­ner.

With sub­ject mat­ter be­ing of im­por­tance in modernism, Smith also presents themes ded­i­cated to spe­cific gen­res and how these artists tran­scended tra­di­tion in fa­vor of in­no­va­tion and orig­i­nal­ity. “close up on Still Life” and “The An­i­mated Fig­ure,” in par­tic­u­lar, deal with two ex­ceed­ingly clas­sic mo­tifs that are pushed to new lev­els.

Take for in­stance Charles

Sheeler’s still life Cac­tus, 1931. The pre­ci­sion­ist work fea­tures a rec­og­nized com­po­si­tion—a plant on a ta­ble—but its sub­ject is el­e­vated from the usual vases, flow­ers and fruit. It also has a wider frame of ref­er­ence to the sur­round­ings around the ta­ble, per­haps show­ing in­sight into Sheeler’s own world where he ini­tially set up the com­po­si­tion. Mar­cel Duchamp’s Nude De­scend­ing Stair­case (No. 3), an ex­am­ple from the fig­u­ra­tive sec­tion, is a mixed-me­dia ver­sion of his famed Nude De­scend­ing Stair­case (No. 2) that caused up­heaval at the 1913 Ar­mory Show. Done in an al­most Pi­casso-like style, the fig­ure’s form fea­tures an ar­ray of ab­stract shapes in each in­di­vid­ual step it takes down the stair­case. while seem­ingly static through its an­gu­lar­ity, the work has a sense of flu­id­ity and move­ment as the nude cas­cades down­ward to the bot­tom land­ing.

Through the re­lated cat­e­gories of “Na­ture Ab­stracted” and “Ur­ban Ge­om­e­try,” Smith turned her fo­cus to the sur­round­ing world that in­spired the artists. She elab­o­rates,“‘na­ture Ab­stracted’ is about the land­scape and the dif­fer­ent strate­gies artist had in deal­ing with and re­spond­ing to na­ture. ‘Ur­ban Ge­om­e­try’ spring­boards off the land­scape to the ur­ban land­scape, which is a segue into in­dus­trial im­agery and the sky­scraper.” O’ke­effe’s Red Hills and Bones and From the Lake No. 3 are both found in the sec­tion de­voted to land­scapes. Of the pieces, Smith says,“one stand­out for me is her paint­ing From the Lake No. 3, 1924, which is a par­tic­u­larly ab­stract work that she would have done in the summer of 1924 when she was spend­ing time up in Lake Ge­orge. In this sec­tion, we also in­clude Red Hills and Bones from 1943, which is some­what more fig­u­ra­tive. “I par­tic­u­larly like this com­par­i­son,” continues Smith, “be­cause there’s the story in art that fig­u­ra­tion peo­ple dis­cover ab­strac­tion, as though it was linear, but it’s in­ter­est­ing—and we can see this in Mars­den Hart­ley’s work as well—that the ear­lier work is the more ab­stract of the two. [These two by O’ke­effe] tell an in­ter­est­ing story.”

Charles De­muth’s Lan­caster (In the Prov­ince

No. 2) is one of the stand­out paint­ings from the “Ur­ban Ge­om­e­try” sec­tion. It shows how the ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia town, about 80 miles out­side Philadelphia, was be­gin­ning to de­velop as tow­er­ing in­fra­struc­tures and sky­scrapers be­gan to rise in the big­ger cities.this piece, which dons the cover of the Smith’s book Amer­i­can Modernism: High­lights from the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art that was pub­lished to cor­re­spond with the exhibition, was also a re­flec­tion of De­muth’s own life.

“Peo­ple think of De­muth as part of the

Stieglitz Cir­cle, but he was a Penn­syl­va­nia boy who spent much of his life in Lan­caster,” Smith

shares. “this is a view of the city that was close to his home, and is a won­der­ful pre­ci­sion­ist ex­plo­ration of the planes and facets of the build­ings.”

Sheeler is again rep­re­sented in the show with Per­tain­ing to yachts and yacht­ing, a paint­ing that nar­rows in on the sin­gu­lar sub­ject of boats at sea, with the sur­round­ing world omit­ted in his work .this is also the case in his metropolitan scene Neigh­bors, which is a tight view of build­ings and the shad­ows they cast against one an­other dur­ing var­i­ous times of day.

“Sheeler was not a sailor him­self, but he re­ally re­sponded to the forms… [per­tain­ing to Yachts and Yacht­ing] is a won­der­ful play of the shapes of the wind as the sails merge into the sky, al­most as though it’s de­pict­ing the wind as it’s push­ing the boats along,” Smith de­scribes. “it’s a ter­rific ex­am­ple of his work and very dif­fer­ent from the still life Cac­tus that’s so much more fig­u­ra­tive. It shows the in­flu­ence of cu­bism and fu­tur­ism and mo­tion and move­ment.”

When view­ing the exhibition at the mu­seum, vis­i­tors will ex­per­ince the show be­gin­ning with the “Modern Life” seg­ment and mov­ing to the other cat­e­gories. It presents not a chrono­log­i­cal look at modernism, but in­stead a story through the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics that de­fined the move­ment. Modern Times will be on view April 18 through Septem­ber 3.

John Sloan (1871-1951), Sixth Av­enue and Thir­ti­eth Street, 1907. Oil on can­vas, 24¼ x 32 in. Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art: Gift of Meyer P. Po­tamkin and Vi­vian O. Po­tamkin, 2000. 1964-116-5.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Per­tain­ing to Yachts and Yacht­ing, 1922. Oil on can­vas, 20 x 241/16 in. Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art: Be­quest of Mar­garetta S. Hinch­man, 1955-96-9.

Mars­den Hart­ley (1877-1943), Paint­ing No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915. Oil on can­vas, 39¼ x 315/8 in. Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art: The Al­fred Stieglitz Col­lec­tion, 1949-18-8.

Thomas Hart Ben­ton (1880-1975), Bur­lesque, ca. 1922. Tem­pera on panel, 9½ x 12½ in. Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art: Be­quest of Ed­ward Suckle, M.D. 2002-91-1. © T. H. Ben­ton and R. P. Ben­ton Tes­ta­men­tary Trusts / UMB Bank Trustee / Li­cense by VAGA, New York.

Ge­or­gia O’ke­effe (1887-1986), Red Hills and Bones, 1943. Oil on can­vas, 29¾ x 40 in. Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art: The Al­fred Stieglitz Col­lec­tion, 1949-18-109.

Left: Beau­ford De­laney (1901-1979), Por­trait of James Bald­win, 1945. Oil on can­vas, 22 x 18 in. Philadelphia mu­seum of Art: 125th An­niver­sary Ac­qui­si­tion. Pur­chased with funds con­trib­uted by the Daniel W. Di­et­rich Foun­da­tion in mem­ory of Joseph C....

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