Detailing modernism's early stirrings in North America

It's a pity the superb Maurice Prendergast show that just closed at the Coe Kerr Gallery in Manhattan couldn't be installed in the Brooklyn Museum for the next several weeks. It would serve as the perfect introduction and foil to that museum's current exhibition detailing modernism's early stirrings in North America. As it is, we must be content with four of Prendergast's works, one of them a huge decorative piece, ``Picnic,'' that hardly does him justice, and only one oil, ``Cinerarias and Fruit,'' that in any way demonstrates how exceptional an artist he was. But that's carping. ``The Advent of Modernism: Post-Impressionism and North American Art, 1900-1918'' is, in every way that matters, a fascinating and important show.

Its 125 paintings and works on paper by 54 North American artists constitute the first exhibition to focus on the C'ezannesque, Neo-Impressionist, and Fauve works that helped shape a specifically Post-Impressionist movement on this continent.

They were drawn from public and private collections in Europe and North America, and reflect the influence of C'ezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Matisse on such figures as Prendergast, John Marin, Emily Carr, Stuart David, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Tom Thomson, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber.

The exhibition was conceived by Peter Morrin, organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, funded by a grant from IBM, and installed at the Brooklyn Museum by Sarah Faunce.

It is difficult for us today to realize how shocking the new European painting produced from 1880 until shortly after the turn of the century appeared to almost everyone on this side of the Atlantic.

Even the most curious and open-minded of painters had difficulties with one or another of the Post-Impressionist masters, or with various aspects of their work. And no wonder, for the art of C'ezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and the others represented an entirely new approach to how a painting should be perceived and executed.

As Mr. Morrin writes in his introductory essay to the exhibition's very helpful catalog, ``The revolution which Post-Impressionism brought to North American artists was the possibility of thoroughly rejecting academic methods for an art of spontaneity, pure color, simplified forms, and coherent structure. The transformation was from an art of description to art as a mode of experience. Although Impressionism and `The Eight' [a group of American painters who banded together in 1907 with the goal of seeking independence from the National Academy] initiated the rupture with the genteel 19th-century values of truth, beauty, and morality, it is in Post-Impressionism that North American painting most emphatically declares its independence from established standards and traditions.''

The interest and value of this exhibition lie in the fact that it constitutes carefully chosen pictorial evidence of the quality and range of that ``declaration of independence,'' and that it gives credit, both in the show and in the catalog, to not only the major, but also some of the minor figures of that dramatic and far-reaching event.

And far-reaching it was, as anyone who knows the life stories and the work of Hartley, Marin, Demuth, Weber, and Dove (to name only a few), and who has studied the history of 20th-century American and Canadian art, will realize. Even such painters as Burchfield, Sheeler, Davis, Man Ray, and Thomas Hart Benton, all of whom subsequently rejected anything overtly Post-Impressionistic in their work, were subtly and significantly affected by what they had seen and attempted while under the influence of the great Post-Impressionists.

At the same time, because much of this work was done in a spirit of revolutionary fervor, or represents newly released levels of creative energy and imagination, not all of it is of more than formal or art-historical interest. Prendergast's ``Picnic,'' for instance, is overblown and empty, and the contributions of Arthur Wesley Dow, A.B. Frost Jr., George Of, and Alfred Maurer do neither them nor the movement credit.

Except for these and a few other pieces, however, the show must be rated a major success. After closing here on Jan. 19, it will be seen at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Feb. 21-Apr. 19. Important Feininger prints

No one has done more for American printmaking over the past several decades than Sylvan Cole, both as a dealer of fine prints and as a friend and adviser to several generations of graphic artists. A visit to his gallery is bound to produce a few pleasant surprises like the small but superb exhibition of Lyonel Feininger woodcuts now on view. There are only 10, but every one is outstanding, and several are rare. At the Sylvan Cole Gallery, 200 West 57th Street, through Dec. 31.

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