The Whitney pulls off the tricky feat of art co-existence
New York — America has had its share of self-taught painters, but none with a firmer hand and a clearer eye than John Kane. He was a mineworker in Scotland at 10, a manual laborer in Pittsburgh from the time he arrived there at 19, and a painter of houses and freight cars from the time he was 40.
Although he had experimented quite early with colored drawings on the side of freight cars, he didn't begin to paint seriously for himself until he was past 50. And recognition for his art didn't come until he was nearing 70.
When recognition for his lovingly detailed studies of Pittsburgh and its environs did arrive, however, it came to stay. From the time of his first big success in the 1927 Carnegie International Exhibition until the present, Kane has been acknowledged as one of this country's outstanding "primitives."
A delightful example of his work can be seen in the exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century American painting and sculpture at the A.C.A. Galleries here. Entitled "Scot's Day at Kennywood" and executed with painstaking attention to detail and to local color, it beautifully illustrates this artist's total immersion in the craft of painting and in the activities of his fellowman.
If Kane was a primitive, John F. Kensett was a consummate professional. A second-generation member of the Hudson River School, and a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kensett painted lyrical, modest, and luminous landscapes which had a considerable influence on the younger painters of the latter half of the 19th century.
"Genellis Falls, New Hampshire" is one of his more intimate and subtle works. In it nature, although clearly perceived and precisely rendered, is viewed as though it were an exquisite wonderland. The magic of Kensett and most of his fellow members of the Hudson River School lay in their ability to paint not only the natural beauty of a scene but their delight in it as well.
By contrast, nature for this century's painters tends to be less a place for pleasure than for self-discovery and formal exploration. Where 19th-century American landscape painters lost themselves in wonder at the richness, detail, and grandeur of foliage, forests, and mountains, a large number of their 20 th-century counterparts use these same landscape elements as external forms and symbols for their private searchings and longings.
Marsden Hartley is the perfect example of this type of contemporary artist. And "Winding Road, New Mexico," one of the more important works on view in this exhibition, is typical of what he was painting shortly before he found what he was looking for in the wild and rugged forests and coastline of Maine. While this painting doesn't have the impact of his very best Maine landscapes, it is nevertheless a moving and powerful work of art.
Charles Burchfield was another artist who got nature to do his bidding. With him in control, nature became a place of mystery and joy in which even grass and shrubbery hummed with life and occasionally burst out in ecstasy at the wonder of being alive.
"The Red Road" is an excellent Burchfield, and manages to package and to project more life in a few inches than is often the case in canvases ten times its size.
Other landscapes of particular note in this exhibition are Milton Avery's "Gaspe, 1940" and "Woman on the Road," Margit Beck's "Summer Shadows," Balcombe Greene's "Breakers in the Morning Sun," and, most especially, Lyonel Feininger's delicate and shimmering "Street Scene."
In many ways the most dramatic painting on view is Jack Levine's large and incisive "Edge of Steel," in which a uniformed Joseph Stalin is seen kissing the edge of a sowrd while moving forward before an artillery piece. Painted largely in blacks and whites and with absolute economy of means, this picture shows Levine at his biting best.
I was also taken by George Luks's rapidly sketched "The cabbie," which has all the earmarks of having been dashed off immediately after the artist's far-from-satisfactory encounter with the cabbie himself.
Swiftness and accuracy of execution are also the outstanding features of Robert Henri's remarkable oil sketch of "Marjorie Reclining." Both Luks and Henri took great pride in being able to capture a subject with only a few well-placed brushstrokes. While that sometimes resulted in flashy and empty works, it more often produced warm and revealing documents of human character and behavior. Both these works fit into the latter category.
Although there aren't any real surprises in this show, the quality of the paintings distributed between the two floors of the gallery is consistently high. And the range of styles is considerable. These run all the way from an early Max Weber abstraction ("Construction, 1915"), four of Joseph Cornell's boxes, and a Sam Francis watercolor to a large drawing by Norman Rockwell entitled "Study for the Spirit of Kansas" and two Jo Davidson bronze portrait busts of Golda Meir and Carl Sandburg.
It all goes to show that good art of widely divergent styles and periods can coexist comfortably in one area.
This exhibition at the A.C.A. Gallery will remain on view throughout the summer.