Art that walks a tightrope
New York — Cubism and Constructivism, in their pure states, were difficult to import into this country at the time they evolved, and difficult, even, for many American painters of the late 1910s and the 1920s to absorb.
Even Americans like John Marin and Charles Demuth, who did understand their basic principles, preferred to use these European styles as energizers and formal correctives rather than as ends in themselves.
And so these geometric and severely formal European styles were translated into whatever was rigidly patterned or visually complex in the American scene: In other words, into paintings of buildings, flattenedout and tightly organized studio still-lifes, or urban and industrial landscapes.
But it wasn't only formal opportunism which caused so many younger artist to start painting such subjects. There was also, at the time, a new interest in architecture and in the city itself, in its increasingly tall buildings, pulsating energy, and its jumbled masses of people and architecture.
The time was ripe, then, around 1918-20, for a fusion of modern European styles and typically American subjects, something which American painters and printmakers from all parts of the country were only too happy to provide.
In the course of the next 15 years these artists produced some extremely handsome work, 95 examples of which -- some borrowed from major museum and private collections -- are on view at Hirschl and Adler Galleries here. It's an interesting and valuable exhibition, primarily because it give us a clear and unified picture of an important period in American art history, but also because it contains some outstanding paintings, drawings, and prints.
Above all, this new American art was an art of synthesis and compromise. With the exception of a few rugged individualists like Marin, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keefee, it occupied a cautious middle position between abstraction and a particularly direct from of naturalism.
Even such stalwarts as Sheeler and Demuth seemed to be following an internal blueprint which dictated precisely how far they could go in either direction. They walked a tightrope: too far to the left and they became too abstract. Too far to the right and they became overly realistic -- and thus "unmodern."
John Marin, on the other hand, found his point of balance impulsively and intuitively. The drama of his work stems from his delight in making the conflict between the abstract and the real as intense as possible. Unlike most of his American contemporaries who strove for classical balance, Marin sought creative excitement by banging his formal and thematic elements together as though they were cymbals. His 1929 "New York," for instance, is not only visually exciting but "noisy" as well.
Except for Marin, noise is seldom, if ever, present in the many paintings and prints of bustling cities and factories executed during that period. (There is some "noise" in the pictures of Abraham Walkowitz, but the quality of hiw work is generally so low that he hardly counts as another exception.) What we have instead -- and this is rather odd, considering how dynamic the cities of America are -- is a succession of urban landscapes in which everything is beautifully ordered, where there is absolute stillness, where there is not dirt and hardly any people.
Not that I'm complaining. I mention it only as an interesting characteristic of this art, one which actually gave it much of its pictorial effectiveness and charm.
This sense of stillness and balance is central to the art of Sheeler, Demuth, Ralston Crawford, Elsie Driggs, Hilaire Hiler, Louis Lozowick, Niles Spencer, and Francis Criss. It Is, as a matter of fact, what their art is largely about.
Demuth in particular had a truly extraordinary sense of design, and a painterly sensibility unsurpassed by anyone in his time. His 1917 watercolor "Bermuda: Tree and Houses" is a ravishing piece of work, and my particular favorite in the show.
I was also taken by Sheeler's "Fugue," Spencer's "University Place," Drigg's "St. Bartholomews," Hitler's "From My Window," and Criss's "Third Avenue El."
Particularly outstanding, both as art and as a feat of technical accomplishment, is O'Keefee's "New York Night." I also liked her "Ranchos Church ," but can't imagine what possessed her to paint such a silly picture as "Flagpole with White House."
Slightly out of character with the rest of the exhibition in that they were as much influenced by Expressionism as by Cubism, are the works of Oscar bluemner and Arthur Dove. Both artists are represented by strong paintings, but I was even more pleased to see three of Dove's late and oddly moving watercolor studies.
And finally, there are some prints. Of these, Armin Landeck's "Manhattan Vista," Martin Lewis's "East Side Night -- Williamsburgh Bridge," and Lozowick's "Whhitehall Building" are particularly impressive.
This is significant and very interesting exhibition will remain on view at Hirschl and Adler Galleries through Nov. 29.