Tuesday, 12 June 2018

America's Cool Modernism:Architecture as Abstraction/Architecture as Emotion.

“You can be lonely anywhere but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city surrounded by millions of people.” - Olivia Laing, The Lonely City:Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.

You won't see many people at all in the 'precisionist' paintings that make up Oxford Ashmolean Museum's compact and bijou, yet very impressive, show of American art from the first half of the last century. But there's still an undeniable presence about many of these paintings. At times a sense of wonder or awe, at times a sense of foreboding or dread.

American art doesn't tend to get out to Europe as much as it probably should so many of the artists on show at the Ashmolean are far from household names here. Sure, there's a trio of Edward Hoppers, a couple of Georgia O'Keeffes, some minor but impressive work by Grant Wood as well as some by second tier names like Stuart Davis, the Charleses Sheeler and Demuth, Arthur Dove, and O Louis Guglielmi but many artists on show here were both new and revelatory to me. Not least George Ault of whom more later.

Marden Hartley - Painting No.50 (1914-15)

The show starts, ever so slightly, on the wrong foot with a room mostly full of purely abstract works including paintings inspired by the simplicity and honesty of Shaker furniture, native American motifs (Marden Hartley, above) and Dadaist renderings of knitting machines (Morton Schamberg, below). There's even a painting by E E Cummings who'd later achieve widespread fame by affecting to have his initials written in lower case and composing poems like 'i carry you heart with me' and 'anyone lived in a pretty how town'.

They're not bad paintings but they're not really paintings that speak in their own accent. They're still in hock to the then dominant European art scene. The likes of Edward Steichen and Arthur Dove were making tentative steps towards a new, American, art but it would take World War II and the rise of abstract expressionism and then pop art before New York truly replaced Paris as the world art capital.

E E Cummings - Sound (1919)

Morton Schamberg - Untitled (Mechanical Abstraction) (1916)

Edward Steichen - Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) (c.1921)

Arthur Dove - Penetration (1924)

This linear explanation of art history has had the rather unfortunate effect of sidelining some wonderful artists who don't quite fit into that narrative. Dove has been considered to be America's first abstract artist though his works here, Penetration (above) and Fishboat (below), are representative even if they're painted at such close, or obscure, angles as to give the impression of abstraction. 

Helen Torr's Houses on a Barge looks more surreal than abstract. It looks like the sort of painting that Alfred Wallis may've come up with after a chance meeting with Salvador Dali. It's rather charming even if it's something of an outlier in America's Cool Modernism. Not being particularly 'cool' (whatever that means) or modern.

Helen Torr - Houses on a Barge (1925)

Arthur Dove - Fishboat (1930)

Joseph Stella - Telegraph Poles with Buildings (1917)

Joseph Stella's Telegraph Poles with Buildings dates from eight years before Torr's work but certainly qualifies as both cool and modern. Electric blue clouds, fiery red edifices, and telegraph poles that poke out into the sooty sky with all the menace of a gothic horror.

Niles Spencer may've set his Waterfront Mill in a, marginally, less polluted atmosphere but it still contains within it a sense of menace. Where are the people? Where have they all gone? What goes on in these buildings? This is Lowry after the holocaust. 

Niles Spencer - Waterfront Mill (1940)

Charles Sheeler - Water (1945)

By the time of Spencer's work, as well as Charles Sheeler's imposing Water, architecture was being celebrated for itself. In America they had built a new society, one that would soon become the world's dominant power, and its monolithic water towers, skyscrapers, bridges, and underpasses all become shorthand not just for the imposing new masters of the world but also for the anxieties that nation's citizens would've felt undergoing such dramatic changes, living in such interesting times. As Europe was being destroyed by war the USA was capitalising on mass immigration to build cheaply, quickly, and with very clear motivations.

Architectural set pieces, like those seen in Charles Sheeler's MacDougal Alley, left people without privacy, without intimacy, and sometimes without sunlight. Yet they looked amazing. Dehumanization could come in many forms and there was beauty in the stacks of the city as they spread out miles in every direction. Dismissed by many in Britain as concrete jungles at the time but now we celebrate concrete and know that jungles hold the widest array of life anyone could  hope to find. 

Charles Sheeler - MacDougal Alley (1924)

Charles Demuth - I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold (1928)

So it was in expanding American cities like New York and Pittsburgh (California had yet to really develop its own art scene but when it did it would be a different thing again). George Ault's Hoboken Factory from 1932 was probably my favourite painting in the entire exhibition. The glow of the streetlamp, the unlit lower floor, the mysteriously lit upper floor, and the long shadows. It looks like CCTV footage and it's tempting to stare at it for a few more minutes in the anticipation that something happens.

But, of course, nothing happens - in this or most of the other paintings on show in Oxford. Buildings stand as silent sentinels dwarfing people. We look up to them but they resolutely ignore us. Buildings can make us happy, they can make us sad, and in the case of George Ault I'd wager they can do both  of these things at the same time. Ault was a troubled man. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1891 three of his four siblings took their own lives and he became an alcoholic after his mother died in a mental institution before alienating himself from the art world with his increasingly neurotic behaviour. It's a shame because on the, admittedly scant, evidence here he was a very great, and clearly under rated, artist. Potentially the Giorgio de Chirico of the Midwest!

George Ault - Hoboken Factory (1932)

George Ault - New York Night, No 2 (1921)

If Hoboken Factory was the work that jumped out at me then New York Night, No 2 is not far behind. It's either dawn or dusk in the Big Apple and the lights of an oncoming vehicle appear to be shining through the half-lit streets. It could, like many works here, be the setting for a film noir.

Which is certainly something you could also say for Gordon Coster's Pittsburgh. Telegraph poles (quite the trope in this art) lean uneasily towards a curve in the railway line as a a train chugs out of the station and past some industrial chimneys. It's a scene all too familiar these days but it seems to speak of a golden age of rail travel. The days of porters, buffet cars, and, in the US, cow crushers. It could be a still from an early Alfred Hitchcock film.

George Ault - View from Brooklyn (1927)

Gordon Coster - Pittsburgh (c.1930)

Paul Strand - Under the El, New York (1915)

Interspersed among the paintings are a few etchings, a film, a poem by William Carlos Williams, and some photographs by the likes of Imogen Cunningham and Paul Strand. They certainly don't dominate, or even detract from, the paintings but they do complement them quite neatly. They have the same sense of a busy city caught at a quiet, solitary, moment and as such they're equally reflective.

Less so, despite still being unpopulated, is Jacob Lawrence's panel no 31 from his Migration Series. A rare African-American artist (possibly the only one?) in this show his work deviates a little from the powerful yet formulaic, and precise, paintings of Sheeler and Ault. They even have a sense of jazz about them in their loose adherence to colour and composition. The placings of those Harlem windows are as free as a John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders solo.

Jacob Lawrence - The Migration Series panel No.31:The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north (1940-41)

Stuart Davis - Jefferson Market, New York (1930)

Niles Spencer - Erie Underpass (1949)

Louis Lozowick's work seems to look towards Soviet constructivism or even the De Stijl paintings of Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg. There's even a hint of Wyndham Lewis's vorticism. It's a world away from Niles Spencer's childlike Erie Underpass or the bright fairground colours of Stuart Davis's Jefferson Market, New York and it shows how the curators have opened up this show in a variety of new and interesting ways.

Paul Kelpe's Machinery looks like the sort of contraption that swallowed up Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Louis Lozowick and Howard Cook's lithographs both demonstrated just how much can be done with this source material and initiated a debate between me and my friends as to what a lithograph actually is. Wikipedia informs me that it's printing from a stone (lithographic limestone) or a metal plate with a smooth surface. So that's that one sorted.

Louis Lozowick - Red Circle (1924)

Paul Kelpe - Machinery (Abstract #2) (1933-34)

Louis Lozowick - New York (1925)

Howard Cook - Times Square Sector (1930)

George Josimovich - Illinois Central (1927)

Will Gompertz, writing for BBC News, claimed, of this exhibition, that "it really takes something to make an Edward Hopper painting feel overly populated" and so it proved (though who would ever doubt such a man as Gompertz). There may only be two people in the three Hopper paintings that dominate the third room of the show but that's pretty hectic compared to what's come before.

Of course, the Hopper paintings are good. Everybody knows that by now. They're probably not his best but it seems most of those tend to stay in the US. From Williamsburg Bridge is textbook Hopper, a solitary human sits at an open window as nothing much happens, Down in Pennsylvania catches a train station late at night just as the, presumably, last train departs leaving the platform empty, and Manhattan Bridge Loop captures a lone man walking home alone late at night as the buildings loom large in the distance. I've said before that Hopper's paintings to me are more solitary than lonely but these now seem more imbued with loneliness than before. Perhaps it's how the other paintings have set my mind, perhaps it's my age, perhaps it's my own present circumstances. Who knows? What I do know, what I have learnt, is that loneliness and solitude can look very very similar to an outsider but feel very very different in the soul of the person who's experiencing it.

Edward Hopper - From Williamsburg Bridge (1928)

Edward Hopper - Down in Pennsylvania (1942)

Martin Lewis - Which Way? (1932)

Edward Hopper - Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928)

Martin Lewis's Which Way?, a small black and white piece, holds its own impressively in the room with the Hoppers. The curators (with, very possibly, a winked eye pointing towards the current US administration) hint that it's not just the driver that's lost in inclement weather but possibly the country itself. Yes, an analogy. I suppose it works but, for me, the painting works best as an animation of the psychological horror of living everyday as a human being.

Grant Wood goes as far as to humanise his grain sheds and houses. Fertility seems not only to speak of the fertile land of the Iowa corn belt he was raised in but also the gravid architecture of the shed itself. It begins a neat little coda to the whole exhibition with buildings painted in vivid colour (inspired by both Cezanne and Picasso we're informed), by Charles Sheeler (again, he's as much a star of this show as Hopper and Ault) and Ralston Crawford.

No barns, silos, or elevators look like that in real life, if you saw one you'd be freaked, but these paintings capture the essence, the immensity of the buildings and the country they reside in, and something of their awesome, and potentially awful power. The last painting as we leave is Georgia O'Keeffe's Ranchos Church from 1930. Its grey funereal surface looking for all the world like a gigantic tomb. If that's supposed to hint that American art and culture is dead then I can't agree at all. The cultural life of the USA is enduring a tough patch but I'm pretty confident that great art, again, will come out of the country and soon the dark imposing skies of George Ault's Hoboken Factory will give way to the sunlit uplands of Charles Sheeler's Bucks County Barn. There's just too many good people there not to let that happen. I hope!

Grant Wood - Fertility (1939)

Charles Sheeler - Bucks County Barn (1940)

Ralston Crawford - Smith Silo, Exton (1936-37)

Ralston Crawford - Buffalo Grain Elevators (1937)

Georgia O'Keeffe - Ranchos Church (1930)

Thanks to Colin, Alex, Tony, Jo, Grace, Izzie, and Max for joining me for a great little art exhibition, a wonderful sunny afternoon underneath the dreaming spires, and, of course, a (not inconsiderable) debrief in the pub afterwards.

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