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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."




American art history is such a cozy corner of the discipline. Few scholars paid much attention to it prior to the 1960s, which may help to explain why I knew next to nothing about it when I entered grad school in 1974. In grad school, I learned quite a lot about it, thanks to a couple of excellent courses taught by Barbara Novak, but I also learned that an awful lot of other American art historians treated their subject as history first and art second. In this, of course, they were ahead of the discipline as a whole, which in today’s postmodern times (as nearly as I can tell) prefers to present its subject in the form of illustrated sociology courses (as opposed to paying any or much attention to the esthetic quality or formal values of the art).

Still, American art history is particularly amenable to this approach, if only because its esthetic quality (prior to Pollock) is (with maybe a few exceptions) not on a level with the best of the European art that it mimicked from the 17th century through to the early 20th. If American art history weren’t our own art history, I wonder whether we ourselves would pay that much attention to it, but as it is, and as a great many of us are also fascinated by our political and social history, the permanent collection of American paintings, sculpture and decorative arts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of its most popular. When in mid-January, the museum re-opened its freshly restored and expanded New American Wing Galleries, the New York Times front-paged the event with a review by Holland Cotter, which described the new galleries as “sensational,” and emphasized how packed with politics their art was. Not to be outdone in this mutual love affair, the Met took a full page ad in the Times on January 24, in which it quoted that one word from the Times (“sensational”), and described its new galleries as providing “an unparalleled view of America’s history as told through great works of art.”

Well, “great” is maybe putting it a bit strongly, but “large” would certainly apply to the later paintings of the Hudson River School by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic E. Church, ensconced in a high-ceilinged gallery whose centerpiece is the still larger & more dramatic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) by Emanuel Leutze. This 12½ by 21¼ -foot piece of campaign oratory, framed by a mass of golden bric-a-brac based on the original frame design, was playing to a full house on the day that I was there, with legions of museum visitors training on it their I-Pads or their I-Phones or whatever the hell else it is that tourists use to take pictures of the sights they are seeing. It should fit nicely into the shows they will give their friends and relations when they get home, somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and the views of Times Square.

For people who care about art, as opposed to spectacle, there are plenty of fine early Colonial portraits on view, not least by John Singleton Copley, and plenty of fine examples of the earlier (& better) Hudson River School artists, including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and John Kensett. There are fine genre scenes that Novak considered characteristic of American light, by William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham. The Met is also well-supplied with excellent works by Winslow Homer, both early & late, though its holdings in Thomas Eakins are perhaps a bit spotty (one really has to go to Philadelphia to see Eakins, and to New England to find the best of Fitz Hugh (or Henry) Lane). Albert Pinkham Ryder lived in New York for most of his life, but I noted only two small examples of his mystical moonlight marines. There is a good-looking gallery of full-length portraits from the later 19th and early 20th centuries, though the docents gather their listeners in front of “Madame X” by John Singer Sargent, and I prefer the portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler by William Merritt Chase (there’s real magic in that one, though Chase on the whole was not a major master). The four landscapes by Theodore Robinson, who was the best of the American Impressionists, are also lovely, and there are a couple of lively early genre scenes by John Sloan.

For the rest, there is something for everybody who evaluates pictures upon the basis of their subject matter, from documentary-type scenes of 19th-century corn-husking and a locomotive arriving, to anti-slavery propaganda, folk art, and more and less sentimental scenes of mommies, babies and children; from a whole gallery of Wild West horsies and cowboys (sure to delight the men folk, all of whom were boys once upon a time), to pretty-pretty 20th century impressionism and miscellaneous other crowd-pleasers. It was kind of touching to see these modest works attracting the interest of so many people, whether or not they knew anything about art. It made me remember how back in the 19th century, before the advent of movies and TV, art exhibitions could draw crowds of ordinary people, the way few of them do today.


Another exhibition of decidedly historical interest is also packing in the crowds at the Museum of Modern Art. It is “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art” (through May 14). Organized by Leah Dickerman, it reunites, for the first time in 80 years, five of the “portable murals,” or freestanding frescoes, out of eight painted by the Mexican muralist for his 1931-1932 retrospective at MoMA. This retrospective was only the second that MoMA had accorded an individual artist since its opening in 1929 (the first had been devoted to Matisse). Given the lack of exposure and plaudits that Rivera has been accorded in recent years, it’s well to remember that he and his fellow Mexican muralists, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, enjoyed towering reputations in the 1930s, for two reasons (as I see it). The first was the left-wing orientation of the political arena in the 1930s, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, that beneficent “traitor to his class,” basking in popular acclaim, the Communist Party of America at its peak of fame and influence, and the labor union movement making tremendous strides. All this helped to create a climate in which “people’s art” was admirable, and, since “The People” were, for the most part, unsophisticated in matters of art, representational imagery that might appeal to them or at last represent them, was particularly admired.

All the Mexican muralists were passionately committed to an art that spoke to the masses, but at the same time, they had acquired the rudiments of a modernist artistic outlook (Rivera, in particular, had been to Paris and gone through an overtly cubist period in his youth). In addition to the cubist influences of Paris, Rivera (as well as the others)also incorporated some of the style and imagery of pre-Columbian sculpture, which was also admired by U.S. modernists for the simplicity and directness of its idiom (Picasso, Derain and the Blaue Reiter having established a precedent for admiring art from non-Western cultures early in the 20th century). All this meant that the murals Rivera & his colleagues created could also, in addition to being politically desirable, be admired as “modern” art, and collected by patrons and museums who wanted to be thought modern, but blanched at the prospect of endorsing abstraction (or near abstraction), as practiced in Paris & at the Bauhaus by Arp, Miró, Klee, Kandinsky and most especially Mondrian.

Even as sophisticated an observer as the young Clement Greenberg fell for Rivera in a big way at the 1931-32 retrospective. “I wish you were down here to see the Diego Rivera show at the M. A. M.,” he wrote to his friend, Harold Lazarus, on February 3, 1932. “He’s a great artist. Fellows like Matisse, Picasso et al. pale when you look at his murals. The canvases are weak—except one or two early cubistic ones where he beats the French at their own game—except Braque. Two watercolors outdo Marin. Just imagine, even two! Three’s all they show. THE FIRST GREAT NORTH AMERICAN ARTIST. Really.” To be sure, Greenberg had simmered down by 1944, when in his obituary of Mondrian, he relegated Rivera, along with Puvis de Chavannes and the W. P.A. murals, to the category of “archaeological reconstruction.” But some of the murals he admired in the 1931-32 show still look pretty good—not all of them, to be sure, but three in particular. One is “Indian Warrior” (from the Smith College Museum of Art) with an Aztec in a jaguar costume, replete with jagged teeth, stabbing a supine Spanish conquistador with a stone knife. A second is MoMA’s own “Agrarian Leader Zapata,” with the Mexican rebel and folk hero leading a white horse and surrounded by armed peasant supporters.

The third, and best--–if also apparently one of the most controversial—is “Frozen Assets,” a tall, rectangular canvas divided into registers (from the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico). At the top is a skyline composed of New York City skyscrapers, many of which had been recently completed and can be identified; next come cranes and other evidence of construction still in process, and below them an elevated train (such a formerly ran along Sixth & Third Avenues), with a platform bearing many tiny passengers. In the middle section of the canvas comes a large steel and glass shed, with dozens and even hundreds of presumably homeless people sleeping inside of it, while down at the bottom is a bank vault with safety deposit boxes, and rich people putting in or taking out their wealth.

This hierarchical composition is very effective, from a purely visual point of view, in addition to making its political point. But the supporting “historical” labels are way off base—though I don’t know exactly why. After carefully listing the names, addresses and completion dates of nine skyscrapers depicted, the wall text maintains that all of these buildings owed their existence to the millions of unemployed who were hired to build them in the depths of the Depression. Was this what Rivera thought, or do we owe its screaming naïveté to some young curatorial type who wanted to get in a plug for the 99 percent currently celebrated by “Occupy Wall Street”? In any event, it’s nonsense. Much as I hate say it (since I belong to the 99 percent myself) these skyscrapers really owe their existence to the 1 percent, and in particular to a very few rich men who could afford to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, and to spend further millions of their own money, even in the Depression. But none of these rich men had originally figured on doing that.

After a strenuous couple of hours spent looking up buildings through Google, I am here to report what I suspected, which is that only one of these nine buildings was actually begun after the stock market crashed in October 1929 (and even that one involved only an addition to an existing structure). All the rest were the fruits of the huge building boom that had begun in the late 20s, when the stock market was hitting new highs, and it looked as though good times were here forever. (This insight of mine originated with a slide show I attended, given by a friend of mine, Robert Zolnerzak, who visited Dubai and Ethiopia a couple of years ago. Many of Bob's slides showed half-finished high-rises, still clad in scaffolding, relicts of the great building boom that had begun in the early part of the 21st century, then bust along with the credit crunch of 2007 and the stock market crash in 2008. It was a telling reminder of how widespread that boom had been, and how widespread the bust that followed it.)

After all, it takes time to build a skyscraper. First, somebody has to have the idea, then acquire the land (often from multiple previous owners) and hire an architect. Then the architect has to design plans, and the existing structures on the land have to be razed. Only then can construction start, and it takes a while, too. Of the seven buildings completed but not begun in the early 30s, the one which took the least amount of time was the Empire State Building, which opened for business in May 1931. Construction on that building was accomplished in record time—sometimes as much of four stories went up in one week—but even so, it took 27 months from the initial meeting between John J. Raskob, whose millions were derived from his leadership of GM, and his architect—which in other words means that this original meeting took place in February 1929. The Chrysler Building was erected by Walter P. Chrysler, of the automobile company, on the site of a former brewery. It was completed in 1930, but ground was broken for it in September 1928.

The story of Rockefeller Center, the city within a city, is so colorful that at least one whole book has been written about it (by Daniel Okrent). Originally, one of the board members of the Metropolitan Opera, Otto Kahn, envisaged this project (as early as 1926) as the site of a new opera house, combined with hotels, apartment houses, and/or offices or whatever. By May 1928, he had succeeded in interesting John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, in the idea, but when the stock market crashed, the Met backed out (they had planned to sell their old opera house to pay for the new one, but real estate values plummeted in the wake of the stock market crash, so the sale wouldn’t have covered the cost of construction). That left “Junior” (as he was called) to carry on, and carry on he did, with the aid of a loan for $165 million from Metropolitan Life and selling some of his own Standard Oil stock for $2 a share (at its height of the 20s, it had been selling for $80). I am sorry to have to say something nice about somebody so rich, but “Junior” in retrospect looks like a true visionary (however many unemployed millions he hired to help him make his vision become a reality).

Anyway, I should add that, in addition to the frescoes, this exhibition has a number of preliminary drawings and cartoons (in the Renaissance, not the Disney sense of the word); also a sketchbook chronicling a Rivera visit to the Soviet Union, and an absorbing vitrine of documents concerning the embarrassing situation that arose in 1933, when Rivera tried to include a portrait of Lenin in the mural he was painting for Rockefeller Center in what was then known as the RCA Building (now the GE Building). Young Nelson Rockefeller, Junior’s son, who was the family representative on the Rockefeller Center board, and the family’s foremost authority on modern art, was afraid that people might be offended by that portrait, and asked Rivera to take it out. When Rivera declined, the whole mural was painted over (other reasons have been suggested for the impasse, but the documents in this exhibition do not support them).

Among the cartoons, I particularly liked the huge charcoal on paper depicting pneumatic drilling, a study for one of the original frescoes that is not in the show. It has wonderful curving lines, and the human figures look so plump and cuddly, somehow innocent and vulnerable in spite of their workmen's attire & equipment. The plumpness of Rivera’s figures makes me wonder about his own body type: the photographs of his face in the exhibition show it to have been somewhat rounder and more open than the slightly longer and leaner face of Alfred Molina, who portrayed him in the movie “Frida.” And the innocence of his figures, while also shared by masters as varied as Rembrandt and Claude, reminds me a bit sadly that back in the 30s, many people still believed – or at any rate, hoped --- that a kinder, gentler alternative to capitalism could actually survive. For it was as a kinder, gentler alternative to capitalism that communism presented itself; its adherents argued (and believed) that its brutality was only temporary, necessary for its defense as long as capitalism was still in the world, and that even while capitalism still existed, communism would ensure that everybody could share the wealth of their communities. I don’t know who else has said it, but I myself suspect that Social Security, the TVA, and all the rest of the New Deal’s egalitarian achievements might not have come into being had not many conservatives been afraid that without them, American itself might go over to communism. Certainly, without that possibility, capitalism in America seems to be reverting to its own ferocious, pre-New Deal shape.
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