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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938). Paterson Mills, ca. 1911. Colored pencil and ink on paper. Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, Stetson University , DeLand, Florida
The Montclair Art Museum is an easy commute. The De Camp Bus lines’ #33 route from Port Authority decants you on the doorstep of the museum in only 40 minutes or so, and the museum has long had a reputation for exhibitions that match the ambition – if not the scale – of Manhattan’ s museums. A year or so ago, I vastly enjoyed its presentation of “Cézanne in America,” and this time, I looked forward to seeing two new shows: “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913” and “Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Paterson, New Jersey” (both, alas, closed June 16).


Actually, “The New Spirit” was three shows in one. All three were devoted to the American contribution to the Armory Show – so often forgotten amid the hullabaloo caused by the inclusion of so many avant-garde European works, but essential to a full understanding of how the show came to be, and why those European works were greeted with such amazement.

The first show, in the Montclair museum’s lobby, consisted of works from its permanent collection by the principal American organizers of the show: Jonas Lie, Allen Tucker, Walter Pach, Robert Henri, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies & Walt Kuhn. None of the works on view were terribly radical, even when done long after the Armory Show, nor do I need to say more about the last five artists on this list, as they are still well-known to students of American art history.

However, I also liked the landscapes of Jonas Lie (1880-1940) and Allen Tucker (1866-1939), both artists new to me, and although both paintings made me wonder if their paint had not darkened a bit with age. As for Pach, his bright landscape “After Cézanne” (ca. 1921-1932) reminded me yet again of how radical Cézanne appeared not only at the time of the Armory Show but for decades thereafter (I can even recall outrage at his canvases when I was teaching undergraduates in the 1980s, and for all I know he is still hard for the kiddies to take).

In the small gallery behind this lobby was a documentary exhibition, mostly if not entirely drawn from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, especially items donated in 1962 by Brenda Kuhn, Walt’s daughter. This show was guest-curated by the Archives’ Mary Savig (who is also the curator of “The Art of Handwriting,” a show of 45 different artists’ letters and postcards from the Archives on view through October 27 in its Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington—this I know because I was invited to contribute the label accompanying the letter by Abraham Rattner, my dissertation topic).

In the Montclair show, Savig included letters, clippings, black-and-white postcards of some of the most controversial paintings in the show, the formal invitation to the opening, photographs of the organizers, catalogs from the show’s New York, Chicago and Boston venues, Pach’s red and brown record books of sales, and other material conclusively establishing what an Grade A job of publicizing the show the artist-organizers did, generating reams of copy in the media of the day and resulting in numerous sales. (Anybody who is naive enough to believe that artists are dreamy types with no business smarts should be forced to see a show like this one.)

Of particular interest to me was the blow-up of a photograph of Armory artists & critics of the day taking part in a “beefsteak dinner” on March 8, 1913. The gamut of critics were represented, from open-minded young Henry McBride, who would go on to celebrate the avant-garde right through to the 1950s, to the crusty, fustian Royal Cortissoz, who in the 1940s was still pretty much resisting any art more radical than turn-of-the-century academic purities .

Also of particular interest was the blow-up of a photograph with a bird’s-eye view of the “International Exhibition of Modern Art” as installed in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at 25th Street in Manhattan, with partitions breaking up the space into a maze of many smaller, irregularly-shaped galleries—a procedure that must have made it much easier to take in and appreciate the wide range of works on view.

Finally, there was the central Montclair show itself, “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” displaying works created before the Armory Show by 36 American artists who were represented in the Armory Show itself. This show was curated by Gail Stavitsky, chief curator of the Montclair museum, with guest curator Laurette E. McCarthy. Approximately 40 works were included: mostly paintings, but with some sculpture, prints, watercolors, and other works on paper.

Given the emphasis of most shows devoted to the Armory Show of 1913 upon its European participants, I was intrigued to learn that two-thirds of the 1,200 works on view there were, in fact, by American artists. Given the fact that the women artists in the Armory show are practically never mentioned, it was interesting to also learn that nearly 20 percent of the almost 200 American artists in the show were women.

The purpose of the Montclair show, according to its press release and wall text, was to disprove the “notion” that American art, prior to the advent of abstract expressionism after World War II, was a fairly provincial phenomenon, and to disprove the “myth” that the work shown by the Americans at the Armory Show was “a relative monolith of conservatism.” I must confess that for me—to judge from this show---the notion persists, and the myth has solid basis in reality. But this is not to say that the exhibition didn’t contain many enjoyable works of art. It did—at least for those of us who, like me, don’t feel that every work of art must be in the newest style in order to succeed as art.

The Montclair show did indicate some diversity among the Americans, at least in media, gender, and age. There were even variations in style---nothing earth-shaking, but what could be expected from a diverse group of artists, all coming from the same culture and working at the same moment, but with each expressing his or her individual vision.

Two sets of paired pictures, however, seem to have been intended to present American pictures as direct counterparts of European ones. Arthur B. Davies’ murky little “Sea Drift” (n.d.), with its badly-drawn nudes, was no match for the taut, tense, well-known 1896-97 lithograph of “The Bathers (Large Plate)” by Cézanne, juxtaposed with it.

The picture by Kathleen McEnery (Cunningham) (1885-1971) chosen to pair with Matisse’s delicious little “Nude in a Wood” (1906) was even more embarrassing. “Going to the Bath” (ca. 1905-1913) was a mawkish Art Nouveau-ish study of two insipid women, so anatomically correct that they looked more naked than nude. If these two pairings were intended to demonstrate any degree of equal quality between Americans and Europeans, they showed the opposite of what they were intended to show.

Moreover, with the exceptions of the crude abstraction by Manierre Dawson that hung for one week of the Armory Show’s incarnation in Chicago, and the joyous mélange of architectural forms in the stellar cubist watercolor by John Marin, entitled “Saint Paul’s, Lower Manhattan” (1912), I saw nothing as avant-garde as what Picasso, Braque or even Duchamp were doing in 1913. To Pach, Kuhn and many other Americans (artists & viewers), Cézanne was still that impossible radical and Matisse yet more impossibly daring.

Even artists who would become abstractionists later on were, prior to the Armory Show, clinging to relatively traditional – though somewhat Cézannean or Matissean---representation. I think here of the contributions to the Montclair show by Marsden Hartley, Patrick Henry Bruce, Charles Sheeler, Arthur B. Carles & Stuart Davis: all were represented by pictures that -- while perfectly fine as pictures -- didn’t hint at what their creators would be doing in just a few more years.

That’s not to say that the rest of the show was a total washout. Even traditional representation can be well done, and quite a number of other artists contributed such well-done pictures to this show. Besides the landscapes by Jonas Lie and Allen Tucker in the entry lobby of the museum, I would also include in this category (from the main show) Lie’s likeable still life, “The Black Teapot” (1911), and Edward Hopper’s “Sailing” (1911), a picture with more life than his later work.

Walter Pach was responsible for “The Wall of the City” (1912), a handsome semi-abstract of the wall surrounding the Italian city of Arezzo, where Pach had gone to study the renowned mural cycle by Piero della Francesca, “The Legend of the True Cross.” The Pach painting’s colors (oranges, greens, reds and purples) were warm & inviting, while -- like Piero's -- the picture was further distinguished by the simple nobility of its forms.

Four artists from “The Eight” who had showed together at Macbeth’s only five years earlier were seen to good advantage here: Prendergast, Henri, William Glackens & John Sloan (especially Sloan, whose satirical etching, “The Picture Buyer” (1911) was a killer). None of the four “Eight” were or had ever been particularly adventurous in their stylistic approaches; their novelty had mostly lain in their “slice of life” subject matter. Still, what they did, they did well.

By and large, the work in this show didn’t make me revise my opinion of any of the artists on view, either upward or downward, but I liked a few individual pieces by artists unfamiliar to me (whether the rest of their oeuvre is on a par with these contributions, I can’t say). Among the pictures by such unknowns, I would count “A Hillside” (1912), an oil by Gustave Cimiotti (1875-1969); “The Kennel” (1910), a pastel by Hilda Ward (1878-1950); and “Old Hut, Jamaica” (1912), an oil by E. Ambrose Webster (1869-1935). Most of the sculpture was pretty icky, even when produced by Jo Davidson, who is relatively well-remembered. A possible (though still rather sentimental) exception might be the small bronze “Greyhound Pup #2” (1911) by Grace Mott Johnson (1882-1967).


From the exit of “The New Spirit,” I passed directly into the concluding gallery of “Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Paterson, New Jersey.” Coming in at the tail end of the show turned out to be not such a bad idea, for one of the first sights to hit my eye was a reprint of an old poster showing the sights of Paterson in Bluemner’s day, with inserted vignettes showing the many different silk mills there—and also showing how unexpectedly similar they were to Bluemner’s way of rendering them—in their tall, narrow outlines, anyway, although he didn’t fill in their full complement of windows.

This show’s 27 smallish works on paper, in a variety of media, had come to Montclair from Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Stetson owns a huge number of such works, thanks to Vera Bluemner Kouba, daughter of the artist, and this show had been organized by Roberta Smith Favis, curator of the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection at Stetson. At Montclair, it also included one good-sized oil, loaned by the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, and titled “Expressions of a Silk Town, New Jersey (Paterson Centre)” (1915). It was just as top-quality as are most Bluemner oils from this period, but the real excitement of this show lay in the 27 little sketches and studies and preliminary paintings—some in pencil, some with ink or colored pencil, and some with watercolor or gouache added. They were all or almost all perfectly beautiful.

I found myself darted eagerly from one to the next, scribbling notes about each which, I hoped, would enable me to decide which ones were best. But, reviewing these notes, I realized that I failed hopelessly at coming up with any means to distinguish between them in quality: each had some special virtue to recommend it. In short, this show was a knockout. It gave me the kind of high that I only get from really good art.

It was not the Bluemner I knew best. As I say, there was only one of the more familiar oils. But in some ways this show was even better---more appealing because of its informality & intimacy, the way it offered a look inside of the artist’s working head. To be sure, the subject matter was often the same as the oils: the solid, block-like shapes of buildings, most commonly the silk mills, colored brilliantly in reds and blues. However, the drawings were often more fluid, freer. Moreover, many other parts of the cityscape appeared—houses, trees, rocks, the Passaic River itself.

I’d been looking forward to this show, having been interested in Bluemner ever since I’ve known anything about him—though I don’t know when I first heard his name. Maybe it was when I was covering New Jersey art shows in the early 1970s as a “stringer” for the NY Times. Maybe it was when I took a seminar in early American modernism at CUNY in 1976. Or it may not have been until 1980, when I went to Washington to work on my dissertation with the aid of a Smithsonian fellowship, and found that one of my fellow fellows, Jeffrey Hayes, was working on a dissertation about Bluemner.

Anyway, one way or another, I’d learned a bit about Bluemner before I climbed aboard that De Camp bus. He was born in Germany in 1867, and educated there. In 1892, he came to America and began a career in architecture, but then he got interested in painting, met Alfred Stieglitz, and decided to devote himself entirely to fine art. In 1912, he went back to Europe to learn more about European modernism, and, although he obviously took in cubism, his ability to speak German would have made it particularly easy to steep himself in Kandinsky, and Kandinsky’s color theories.

Returning to New York, he was at first able to show his work—with Stieglitz and elsewhere, but it never sold very well, and his later life, dogged by penury, was often miserable. After his wife’s death in 1926, he moved to Massachusetts, and in 1938 took his own life at the age of 70.

Still, like Kandinsky, he had his own color theories, and, especially in those early years, filled many little notebooks with jottings about color (some of them in German). These notebooks were what Jeff Hayes told me about, and what must have brought him to the Smithsonian, as the many-splendored Archives of American Art there also has extensive holdings in them.

One of the fascinations of the current show at Montclair is the occasional notes scribbled on them concerning the colors in the image – & reinforcing the image itself. Nowhere was this more true – or more appropriate– than in “Paterson Mills” (ca. 1911), which was done in colored pencil and ink. In the center distance, majestically, rise the mills themselves, predominantly done in red, but the other details in the picture site them in a more human & natural context; Bluemner dramatized that context by using contrasting color schemes.

In the left foreground, therefore, is also a little house, with a ramshackle wood stairway leading to its entrance, all done in shades of gray and blue. In the right foreground is green foliage, and in the background rise what look like hills, lightly sketched with very pale strokes of gray. I’ve never been to Paterson, but it must have some heights around it, as the 77-foot-high Great Falls of the Passaic River were the original reason to locate the mills there, back in the 18th century, when Alexander Hamilton helped to make Paterson one of America’s first planned industrial complexes (in 2009, these falls became the site of a National Historic Park).

In 1985, the Barbara Mathes gallery in New York held a Bluemner retrospective, with a catalogue essay by Jeff Hayes. I went to see the show, loved it, and signed my name in the guest book – where I saw that Clement Greenberg had signed it, too. I’m one of those promiscuous gallery-goers who will sometimes sign a guest book purely to indicate that I was there – but Greenberg, I believe, only signed guest books when he’d liked a show. Wasn’t it nice to find that he & I shared yet another enthusiasm!

All the works in the Montclair show were done during Bluemner’s freshest & finest period, between 1911 and 1917, and yes, Virginia, he showed in the Armory Show, too, like so many of the other American artists we remember from this period. In the Montclair version of the Armory Show, he was also represented, though with a surprisingly dark oil entitled “Hackensack River” (ca. 1912). Maybe he hadn’t yet come to the radiance we associate with his best-known work—on paper as well as on canvas.

Seems that 1913 was also the year of a long, large & bitter strike at the Paterson silk mills, and that the striking mill workers received support from some of the artists in the Armory Show. Much is made of this connection in the wall texts of the Bluemner show and the publicity attending it --which enabled Ken Johnson, in his review in the NY Times, to deal with social commentary as much as, and maybe even more than, art. Social commentary is what postmodernists are more apt to be interested in, though, being a modernist myself, I found it irrelevant, especially since no anger or disorder mars Bluemner’s images. Rather, they have the eternal quietude of the Great Sphinx.

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