The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, ‘American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,’ feels more like a chapter in the biography of the museum than it does an exhibition in its own right. This feeling is not a first impression; it was molded by the companion book of the same name. Glenn D Lowry, the museum’s director, argues in the book’s forward that even before the explosion of Abstract Expressionism, MOMA dedicated itself to the purchase of American art. The accusation has always been that American art had been scorned in favor of modern European art in the museum’s early years.
But this was the feeling when one sees the exhibit for the second time. The first walk-through did not reveal the politics behind this way of thinking, especially when one is distracted by both the artwork and stimulating conversation. In fact, when one enters the second floor gallery and sees the paintings of Edward Hopper as well as a watercolor and a few etchings that Hopper completed, the politics of the event become irrelevant. One feels transported back to the Whitney Museum, which currently has a major Hopper exhibit. These Hopper works may set the stage for the next Hopper retrospective: ‘Hopper as Printmaker: And the Paintings They Inspired.’
The linear quality of the etchings provides another detail about Hopper’s thought process as an artist. The lines were less sketchy than the lines in the drawings of the Whitney exhibit. This is because the etchings stand on their own whereas the drawings from the Whitney exhibit were made to help Hopper compose his paintings. Hopper’s etchings owe a major debt to Rembrandt in terms of the loose, linear quality of the strokes. The hatching was thin enough to blend together into larger masses of tone while being thick enough to still be noticeable.
This stands in direct contrast to the drypoint of Martin Lewis from 1929, ‘The Glow of the City,’ which was one of the most satisfying works in this exhibit. The lines are so thin that one has to stand inches away from the etching to be aware of them as lines. From a distance, all one sees are patches of tone.
The exhibit transports the viewer back in time to the 1920s and ‘30s. One can imagine looking out a window and seeing what Arthur Dove and Ben Shahn saw. Grandiose religious and mythological themes were meant for another day and time. The computer age had not yet been born, but handball was being played and white picket fences can be seen as well as a lone rocking chair on a porch. One can see a Saratoga Billboard for Lucky Strikes cigarettes. The abstraction of the paintings and drawings and photographs of this exhibit sometimes overwhelm their figurative roots, which is wonderful. And the photographs felt very much at home alongside the other works of art. Ansel Adams’s portrait of Alfred Stiglietz writing in his studio has a long distance ancestor in Durer’s engraving of ‘St. Jerome in His Study.’ Also worth noting are Stiglietz’s photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands, angular and strong and sensitive all at once.
Paul Cadmus’s oil painting, ‘Greenwich Village Cafeteria,’ is hung outside the exhibit. Maybe there wasn’t enough room for it inside. The gallery space was a little small for all the works that were in it. Charles Birchfield suffered the most from the limited space as his paintings were displayed on three levels of one wall. The lowest level was too low for a knee that had trouble bending and the highest level needed a ladder to be viewed at eye level.
The Cadmus painting is as much a line drawing as it is a painting. The hatching is done for the purpose of rounding the forms, so this becomes a tactile painting and not an optical one. One feels the figures as they interact with one another. (A more optical painting may have had the hatching strokes perpendicular to the direction of the light, with less distinct contours.)
The essay by Esther Adler, ‘The Problem of the American Collection’ is another attempt by MOMA to plead its case. This essay is the climax of the companion book to the exhibit and provides a strong, persuasive argument for its position. The museum’s first exhibition, “which opened ten days after the catastrophic October 1929 stock market crash that sparked the Great Depression” was an exhibition of deceased European artists. The second exhibition, opening a week after the first one closed, featured current American artists. Ms. Adler takes great pride in pointing out that ‘Christina’s World,’ which is part of the current exhibit, is one of the ten most popular paintings in the museum on the basis of the number of reproductions that it sells. And many of the artists in the current show were given one-man shows in the museum’s early years.
The ‘American Modern’ exhibit opened on August 17 and will close on January 26 of next year.