America's Cool Modernism: O'Keeffe to Hopper
The latest exhibition in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum brings together the paintings of two world-famous artists, plus a wealth of work from America's less familiar inter-war artists
Ralston Crawford (1906–78 )Buffalo Grain Elevators,1937 Oil on canvas, 102 x 127.6 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC © Ralston Crawford Estate
You could say it’s cool. It’s certainly good. But in fact the word ‘cool’ in the title of the Ashmolean Museum’s America's Cool Modernism: O'Keeffe to Hopper exhibition doesn’t imply hip or good or relaxed. It describes the controlled, detached style of art produced by artists working in the American inter-war period and grappling with the experience of a rapidly modernising country.
Seen as a body of work, it is both dramatic and at times unsettling. Startling pictures of silos and grain hoppers, sweeping bridges, dizzying skyscrapers, empty tenements, factories, and barns evoke a machine-like, fast-urbanising era. For some, such pictures reflected an ambivalence or anxiety about modernity; for others they were more positive, expressions of optimism and pride.
Undeniably, the portrait of modernisation in these works is clean, efficient, and often exciting: Samuel Margolies’ Man’s Canyon, 1936, and Arnold Rönnebeck’s Brooklyn Bridge, case in point; yet, there’s also a sense of soullessness.
Hopper’s trademark solitary souls are pretty much the only figures to be seen in the show - the pedestrian in Manhattan Bridge Loop, for instance, or the lonely figure on a windowsill in From Willamsburg Bridge (also 1928).
Edward Hopper (1882–1967) Manhattan Bridge Loop,1928 Oil 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
In Charles Sheeler’s 1924 oil painting of MacDougal Alley, the red-brown buildings, stacked together like Lego bricks, blank windowed, blinds down, world shuttered out, are devoid of life. Nothing, not even a pigeon is about.
Although world-famous names of Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper bookend this show, we are introduced to many artists who, while feted in the States, are barely known in this country, indeed in Europe.
It’s a chicken and egg situation. There are very few works by these artists in European museums. And none at all in a UK museum said Ashmolean Director, Dr Xa Sturgis, “Including the two in the title: O'Keeffe and Hopper. Of course, the absence in our museums is a symptom as well as a cause of the unfamiliarity of the majority of artists represented here.”
“We are bringing together in Oxford an exceptional collection of iconic pieces that have never been to the UK before and deserve to be better-known in this country. We will reveal a fascinating aspect of American inter-war art that is yet to be explored in a major exhibition.”
The ‘Precisionists’ - a loosely associated group of early 20th-century American artists who produced the ‘cool’ precise style of art exhibited - including Sheeler, O'Keeffe, and Charles Demuth are well represented in the show.
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
Among them is Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928, from the Met), a work renowned across the Atlantic. According to the art critic Robert Hughes, it is the ‘one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it.’
It is quite a coup having it as a loan to the Ashmolean’s show, a detail Dr Sturgis openly admits was “not entirely unrelated” to the Oxford museum’s loan of important Michelangelo drawings to the Met, New York for their recent exhibition.
Paul Strand (1890–1976) The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916 Photogravure, 16.5 x 21.5 cm
George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York © Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation
The bold colours and design of Demuth’s painting evoke the new styles of advertising cropping up in 1920’s American cities; it is a remarkable anticipation of the later Pop art. Other highlights include early works by O'Keeffe, photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Sheeler (especially Strand’s White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916, and Sheeler’s exquisitely spare Bucks County Barn, c1916), and Hopper’s cityscapes (paintings and etchings).
America's Cool Modernism: O'Keeffe to Hopper
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until 22 July 2018
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