Thursday 3 May 2018

America's Cool Modernism

America's Cool Modernism,

at the Ashmolean, Oxford.

This exhibition of paintings, prints and photographs made by American artists between 1915 and 1945 evokes a world in which human beings are superfluous, replaced or inexplicably absent. These depopulated scenes suggest physical and psychological emptiness. The works use abstract forms and impersonal qualities to evoke machine-like characteristics. The images often seem frozen in time, otherworldly and many emit an underlying uneasiness. Sometimes the 'cool' in these pictures is marked by emotional restraint or control. Other times it mimics the perfection of the machine or the precision of modern scientific advancement. 

Georgia O'Keefe, Black Abstraction, 1927

This painting was inspired by O'Keefe's memory of losing consciousness while in the hospital and undergoing anaesthesia. The body is both present an absent, much as consciousness slips away from the body during exposure to anaesthesia. All unessential details have been stripped away. Rounded balck and white forms draw the viewer into the composition.

Georgia O'Keefe, Abstraction, 1919

With the emphasis on composition and design, O'Keefe developed a unique brand of modernism based on the simplification and isolation of forms and on the use of bold colours.

Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925 (gelatin silver print)

In the 1920s Cunningham oved away from pictorialism to devote herself to detailed, close-up views of natural forms that verge on the abstract.

 Imogen Cunningham, Two Callas, 1925, (gelatin silver print)

Imogen Cunningham, Fageol Ventilators, 1934, (gelatin silver print)

E.E. Cummings, Sound, 1919

Cummings is mostly remembered for his revolutionary writing style with its experimental use of grammar, syntax, typography and form, which made him one of the forefathers of modern poetry. He was also a modernist painter and achieved critical acclaim with his cubist-inspired, large-scale abstractions and his line drawings.

Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, (oil, graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard)

Georgia O'Keefe, East River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928, (oil on canvas)

With its geometric, straight lines in combination with strong contrasts between light and dark, this painting is very different to the organic, abstract forms that we have come to associate with O'Keefe's work. The high viewpoint and the absence of human beings give this painting its emphasis on the inhuman feeling of an industrial city at the height of its technological development, capturing the awe of modern life.

Georgia O'Keefe, Ranchos Church, 1939, (oil on canvas)

O'Keefe painted this church six times, especially its rear fa├žade, with bulging walls and buttresses. She ignored the function of the building as a place of worship and instead concentrated on its organic forms and textured surfaces. Architecture and environment are melded together and the church seems to grow from the land. 'I hate the back of my Ranchos church - Tomorrow I must get out at it again - It is heavy - that is why Strand like it I suppose - I want it to be light and lovely and singing'.

Samuel Margolies, Man's Canyon, 1936, (etching and aquatint on cream laid paper)

Helen Torr, Crimson and Green Leaves, 1927 (oil on plywood)

Suffering from the lack of recognition for her work, Torr stopped painting in 1939 - a fate not uncommon for women artists, unfortunately.

Helen Torr, Purple and Green Leaves, 1927, (oil on copper mounted on board)

Helen Torr, Houses on a Barge, 1929, (oil on canvas)

A surreal nautical composition, with six houses floating on the deck of a ship. The central home becomes abstracted into a whitewashed plane. The painting suggests architecture suggestively deformed as if in a dream.

Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, 1937, (oil on canvas)

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration series, panel no. 25, (They Left their Homes. Soon Some Communities Were Left Almost Empty), 1940-41, (casein tempera on hardboard)

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916 

Charles Sheeler, Water, 1945, (oil on canvas)

Berenice Abbott, John Watts Statue: From Trinity Churchyard, Looking Toward One Wall Street, Manhattan, February 1938, (gelatin silver print)

Berenice Abbott, Canyon, Broadway and Exchange, 1936, (gelatin silver print)

George Ault, New York Night, No. 2, 1921

John Raphael Covert, Resurrection, 1916, (oil, gesso and piled fabric on plywood)

Ralston Crawford, Smith Silo, Exton, 1936-37, (oil on canvas)

The power of this painting lies in its simplicity, lack of extraneous details and smooth, flat paint. In this picture Crawford combined abstraction and representation, using modernist techniques to depict a recognisable American barn.

Edward Weston, Shell and Rock Arrangement, 1931, (gelatin silver print)

Charles Demuth, Nospmas, M. Egiap Nospma. M., 1921, (oil on canvas)

Arthur Dove, Boat Going Through Inlet, 1929, (oil on tin)

Arthur Dove, Fishboat, 1930, (oil on paperboard nailed to wood strainer)

Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn, 1916, (gelatin silver print)

Charles Sheeler, MacDougall Alley, 1924, (oil on canvas)

Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), 1920, (tempera and oil on canvas)

Steichen spoke of Le Tournesol as his attempt to understand the relationship of nature to art and to capture the growth and structure of a flower. He pared down a simple depiction of a sunflower into geometric shapes and bright colours, re-working the outline and forms in several compositions that became progressively more abstracted. Despite the inspiration in nature however, the painting seems far removed from an actual flower.

Joseph Stella, Metropolitan Port, 1935-37, (oil on canvas)

Grant Wood, January, 1938 (lithograph)

Tall, triangular bundles of ear-less corn, completely covered in snow. Animals are suggested but not seen. Wood noted that: 'Nothing caught the spirit of an Iowan winter more aptly than the familiar scene of a field of cornshocks partly covered with snow... one does not get the feeling of utter bleakness and desolation that is characteristic of Dakota'.

Grant Wood, July 15th, (lithograph)

Grant Wood, Fertility, 1939, (lithograph)

Edward Hopper,  Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928, (oil on canvas)

In this quiet depiction of a transportation hub in Lower Manhattan, Hopper emphasised the eerie stillness of bridge, streets, railway structures and tenement buildings. A single figure cast in shadow suggests the loneliness of life in the modern city, but, in typical Hopper fashion, his presence does not tell a story. Instead, the painting leaves us to ponder a random scene, frozen in time.

Edward Hopper, Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942, (oil on canvas)

As art historian Judith Barter has observed, the empty depot and luggage cart evoke 'the sense of a traveller awaking in a sleeping cart and yanking open the window shade to glimpse the next destination'.

Edward Hopper, From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928, (oil on canvas)

Edward Hopper, Night Shadows, 1921, (etching on off-white wove paper)

With its bird's-eye view of the subject walking down a street, Hopper emphasises the act of walking alone in the city at night, and of furtively viewing individuals from a hotel or apartment window.


  1. I'm glad that you got to see it, Eirene. I have just this minute finished reading the catalogue. An interesting selection of work, and a fascinating subject. I hope that you enjoyed it. I certainly am still savouring it.

    1. I really enjoyed the exhibition, Olga - some of the art works were just wonderful, and some new (for me) artists, which is always exciting. Very busy though: if I remember rightly, that was your experience as well. I have had quite a good look at the catalogue, but not read it properly yet.