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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."



John Marin (American, 1870–1953). Lower Manhattan (Composing Derived from Top of Woolworth). 1922. Gouache and charcoal with paper cut out attached with thread on paper. 21 5/8 x 26 7/8″ (54.5 x 67.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. © 2013 Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A second show I saw at MoMA (after I took in Walker Evans) was one I expected nothing much from, and that was about what I got. It’s a bargain show at the Museum of Modern Art, almost completely culled from its permanent collection, and evidently designed to appeal to late summer tourists, but also provide grist for revanchist big-city pomonians.

This is “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe” (through January 26). Consisting of more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculpture made by 50 American artists between 1915 and 1950, it was organized by Kathy Curry and Esther Adler, two assistant MoMA curators.

According to the introductory wall text, the show documents how American artists reacted to the “wide-ranging societal and cultural effects” of the historical events during the first half of the 20th century, which led them “to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as an American identity, and if so, whether and how they fitted into it.”

Yet as MoMA construes this issue, it’s un-American to be an abstract artist, and it’s nearly as un-American to depict people. Going down the list of artists singled out for individual mention in the press release for the show, I find 13 artists represented by works devoid of human figures, but only 6 with works showing human figures, and only three abstractionists (O’Keeffe, Marin and Stuart Davis) . This is obviously not the whole show, but it gives you a good idea of the ratios in it.

As far as MoMA is concerned, it’s also apparently un-American to be upbeat. Personally, I always thought that optimism was something Americans were supposed to be famous for, but the emphasis in this show is upon depressingly barren scenes of impersonal urban shapes and forms, or bleak vistas of deserted landscapes — pomonian dystopia at its most selective.

A lot of these paintings, by the likes of Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, & Charles Burchfield, are perfectly fine, and most of the photographs, by quantities of people from Berenice Abbott to Edward Weston, are even better, but – as with the Walker Evans show – the emphasis on so many purely stationary subjects dramatizes the chilly, artsy-fartsy nature of the undertaking, and discourages the viewer from visualizing life and warmth.

This is not to say there aren’t some depictions of people. I liked the row of handsome sculptures, mostly busts, by Robert Laurent, Gaston Lachaise & William Zorach, but could have done without the cutesy pseudo-primitive painting of a family group by Florine Stettheimer, and the even cutesier statue of a woman piano player by Eli Nadelman.

Why can’t we have the delightful little circus performers and dancers by Charles Demuth, instead of his oh-so-static still lifes of fruits and vegetables? Why are the genre scenes of the Fourteenth Street School painters (Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, & the Soyer brothers) omitted, even when MoMA has works by at least some of them in its permanent collection?

Although the American Scene painters aren’t altogether neglected – there is one small dour Grant Wood -- I missed the lilting outlines of Thomas Hart Benton, surely one of the biggest names of the period, and one whose works are numerous in the storage areas at MoMA.

Why must we have only a couple of stagey boxing scenes by that latter-day academic, George Bellows, but nothing from members of the far more talented members of “The Eight,” not even John Sloan, who is represented in MoMA’s permanent collection by so many lively etchings? Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series (originally titled “The Migration of the Negro”) has been carefully bowdlerized so that the selections from it are almost entirely devoid of figures.

I was happy to see the abstract works by O’Keeffe, Dove, Marin and Davis, but it’s too bad that Marsden Hartley couldn’t have been represented by one of his abstractions, instead of a seascape—even if MoMA had had to borrow one. And why couldn’t the neat little cubist composition by Max Weber entitled “Two Musicians” have been taken out of the stacks and exhibited?

Most serious of all, Alfred Barr refused to exhibit or acquire the American Abstract Artists in the 1930s, insisting that only European abstractions were worthy of MoMA’s attention, and in the 80 years since, practically nothing has been done to remedy his oversight. This show has no George L. K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, John Ferren, Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, or Gertrude Greene. Without them, and their colleagues, this composite portrait of American art from the first half of the twentieth century is even more misleading.

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