by Victor M. Cassidy
"Modern in America: Works on Paper, 1900-1950s," at the Art Institute until April 4, “offers viewers the opportunity to ruminate on what constituted ‘modern’ in America at various moments in the first half of the 20th century,” according to the exhibition text. Taken from the Art Institute’s permanent collection, the exhibition comprises about 140 prints, drawings, collages, and watercolors by 60 famous and not-so-famous artists. Installed in several galleries, the work is not presented chronologically, but is grouped to suggest “the meaningful artistic and thematic dialogues that can unfold in a collection of such depth and breadth.”
There’s so much work in "Modern in America" that I asked Martha Tedeschi, Curator for the Department of Prints and Drawings, to tell us how she made her choices. Tedeschi says the show is “not so much an exhibition about American artists as it is about what was going on in American art from the period 1900 to 1950. I wanted to show . . . the kind of melting pot, artistically, that America was in that 50-year period.” Tedeschi added, “there wasn’t one dominant style or one dominant subject matter . . . infusions of immigrants from Europe or from Mexico had a significant impact on directions in American art.”
“Modern in America,” means “what constituted ‘Modern’ at various moments in various places in America,” Tedeschi continued. One such ‘Modern’ artist is George Wesley Bellows represented by five pieces in the show, including A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917, seen at left), an iconic lithograph of boxers, based on the 1909 painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bellows is “not a classic Modernist in the sense that he was interested in Cubism or Surrealism or any of those avant-garde ‘isms,’” she stated. He was instead a rigorously trained draftsman whose boxers “almost look like Classical sculpture.” In those images, the artist emphasized the crazy, “almost rabid” crowd around the ring and their “reaction to the violence” there. “That was a very modern thing to be looking at,” Tedeschi stated. “But he was not doing it in a very modern style.”
There’s excellent art in "Modern in America," some that does not belong, and a few awful pieces. Best is the Modernist work, especially that of Charles Demuth whose delicate images of fish and flowers in watercolor over graphite make him the star of the show. Demuth’s incisively drawn Flower Study #1 (1923) is Cubist-influenced as is his Bermuda No. 3 – The Tower (1917). There are five Demuths in the show and Tedeschi told us that the Art Institute has much more work in storage, this exhibition “is by no means a full look at [the] Demuth [holdings],” Tedeschi said.
Arshile Gorky, a bravura draftsman, has three semi-abstract works in the show. Three Forms (1937), drawn in pen and brush, suggests animals and fish. Untitled (1943) is a colorful drawing of landscape forms, leaf, seed, and pod shapes that the artist made in the Appalachian foothills. Next to it is the darker Study for “Agony” (1947). According to Tedeschi, the Art Institute owns enough Gorky to have shown “another three or six” works. She picked some pieces that had not been seen for awhile, also one that “we wanted to show off” because conservators had recently resurrected it “from an old state of disrepair.”
Untitled (c. 1950), an image of semi-abstract forms, is the single Willem de Kooning work exhibited. It talks to the Gorkys, but de Kooning painted it in black enamel on paper. The draftsmanship is forceful, but less delicate.
Another superb draftsman is Elie Nadelman represented with two pieces in the show. In Female Head, Full Face(1920), Nadelman uses roughly 40 curved lines, strengthened with directional shading, to create a semi-abstract sculptural head and face. According to Tedeschi, the blank eyes “are reminiscent of carved marble statuary, while the velvety lines particular to the drypoint medium give the image a satisfyingly tactile presence.” Nadelman’s Tango (1914/15) is a diagrammatic image of a dancing couple in brown ink.
Other Modernists in "Modern in America" include Alexander Calder who weighs in with three exuberant gouaches; David Smith; who has one very sculptural drawing, a study for his work The Royal Bird; László Moholy-Nagy with Untitled (1941/42) the best late work by him that I’ve ever seen; Georgia O’Keeffe’s beauteous White Shell with Red (1938, seen above and at top); and Edward Hopper who seems to have known everything there is to know about watercolor.
There’s also work by three little-known black artists--Joseph Delaney’s lively 1957 portrait drawing of the artist Jacob Lawrence; Allan Rohan Crite’s Barber Shop Politics (1939), which depicts a distinctive side of black life; and Marvin Dorwart Cone’s Carnival Graces (1943), which shows from a rear perspective three lightly clad black carnival dancers on a stage, watched by a crowd of leering whites.
Too much weak stuff is included. Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving (1942) is a greeting card style lithograph that shows a farm family preparing dinner—lovable grandmamma, ever-smiling wife in a cotton print dress, adorable babies in a high chair, and more. Even cuter is Margaret Burroughs’ linocut The Birthday Party (1957). Two art fair pieces are Adolf Arthur Dehn’s Winter Day at Key West (1942) and Walter W. Ellison’s The Sunny South (1939).
"Modern in America" is a crazy salad of good work and bad. Still, the strongest pieces—many are unfamiliar—make this a show that everyone should see.
--Victor M. Cassidy
(Image credits, from top to bottom: Georgia O’Keeffe. American, 1887–1986. White Shell with Red. 1938. Pastel on wood pulp laminate board. 546 x 698 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago Alfred Stieglitz Collection. George Wesley Bellows. American, 1882–1925. A Stag at Sharkey’s.1917. Lithograph on cream wove paper. 473 x 605 mm (image); 535 x 670 mm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago. Joseph Brooks Fair Memorial Collection. Georgia O’Keeffe. American, 1887–1986. White Shell with Red. 1938. Pastel on wood pulp laminate board. 546 x 698 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago Alfred Stieglitz Collection. All images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago and used with permission.)