It seems such a surprise that such an extraordinary exhibition of American modern art – as this is – should be hosted at a Museum more familiar with pre-Renaissance European art and archaeology, yet it is because its collection of such older works is so impressive that this remarkable show was able to occur.
For it was the Ashmolean’s loan of 26 Michelangelo drawings to the Met in New York for their exhibition on the great man that saw that gallery lend 18 paintings back to the Ashmolean in return – and it is those paintings that form the backbone of this fantastic show of almost ninety artworks that not only capture the efforts and spirits of American artists as they worked to create a distinctive style of art, but also includes amongst them works that have never before been seen in the UK.
The full title of the exhibition is America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper, and it is those two big names that will draw attention. Four works from Georgia are on display and, interestingly, they cover a good breadth of the challenges and approaches American artists at the time wrestled with.
It was the inter-war years, the 1920s, and America was booming. Its cities were rising up to the sky, its skylines filled with the efficiency and clean straight lines of industrial progress – factories billowing with smoke, their vastness dominating vistas. Yet the art world was still centred around Europe – around European artists and their view of the world, whether that be Cubism or Fauvism, or whichever genre was making waves on the Continent.
American artists wanted to change this. They wanted a fresh artistic perspective for a fresh new world. The Great War had only reminded the world of the problems of Europe and this need to breakaway and forge a new path resonated with Georgia O’Keeffe too.
There’s East River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928, where Georgia emphasises the straight lines of the chimneys and developments on the East River waterfront. Yet contrast this with a painting from her years in New Mexico, the pale blocks of the Ranchos Church, 1930, emblematic of how many artists turned to the natural American landscape as well as the artificial to depict something that was authentically American.
There’s also Georgia’s challenge to figurative works, such as the beautiful monochromatic Abstraction, 1919 where her forensic analysis of a flower matched with close cropping creates an abstract painting drawn from nature rather than from the human imagination.
Hopper too was fascinated with the economic surge in the States, though his viewpoint was more emotionally downbeat, with its emphasis on loneliness and urban isolation. And those familiar themes of his are evident in the paintings and etchings that are on loan for this show.
And this brings into focus the terminology ‘cool’ from the show’s title; not necessarily a colloquialism for something that is in fashion, but rather referring to an austerity in composition. Very minimal works with little in the way of representation of human activity or life. This is cool as clean and precise. As efficient. The removal of all extraneous details.
It is understandable that at first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this show on America in the interwar years with O’Keeffe and Hopper in the mix is simply an extension of the RA’s fantastic America After The Fall exhibition from last year. But though some names are familiar – Grant Wood and Charles Sheeler are also on display here – the emphasis is different; that focused on the effects of the Depression and the crushing of the American dream, this examines what went before and how artists looked to set themselves the challenge of creating a distinctive visual style that was uniquely American.
And another key difference in the two shows is the inclusion here of some wonderful photography. Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston are just some of the famous names on display, and their instantly familiar images of New York skyscrapers and white picket fences are reminders of how critical photography was in capturing that what was uniquely American and how artists consciously explored national identity through subject matter, turning these into the iconic representations of the United States that we instinctively associate with the USA, even after almost one hundred years.
And it is the breadth of works in this densely packed show that make it so wondrous. Each of the artworks is a wonder and it gives us the rare opportunity to appreciate stand-out works from less familiar names. George Ault really stood out for me with his paintings of factories and New York streets at night. The bright lights of the daytime removed, there is a creeping sense of the Hopper in these works, as if removing the bustle and letting these icons of industrial progress fall into the darkness lends them a looming sense of fear or depression.
Yet contrasting the greys in George Ault’s paintings is the luminous I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth. A number 5 bathed in gold leaf shimmering like a beacon of hope dominates the canvas. It draws you in, wanting you to gasp at its beauty. But of course, this is subversive. This is a play at the coerciveness of advertising some forty years before Pop Art got started.
This painting is very rarely seen in the UK (it has only travelled here once before) and it is one of the finest artworks on display in what is a stunningly high-quality show. It is also emblematic of the many challenges and questions American artists asked about themselves and the world they were observing as they witnessed the dramatic change in American economics, culture and society.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to July 22, 2018.
Admission £12.25 (concessions available)
1. Charles Demuth (1883–1935) I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928. Oil, graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard, 90.2 x 76.2 cm© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) East River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928. Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
3. Edward Hopper (1882–1967) Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 152.4 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover MA© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
4. Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) John Watts Statue: From Trinity Churchyard, Looking toward One Wall Street, Manhattan, 1 February 1938Gelatin silver print, 24.1 x 19.1 cm. George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York© Berenice Abbott; Paul Strand (1890–1976) The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916Photogravure, 16.5 x 21.5 cm. George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York© Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation