The originality and potency of American art from the years after World War II cannot be disputed. Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, to name only a few of Abstract Expressionism’s giants, are today acclaimed as modern masters. Nor can the international influence of American post-war art be questioned, pace the persistent theory—unsupported by fact—that worldwide attention was paid to this work only because of a cia-headed propaganda campaign. Yet explanations of the origins of Abstract Expressionism can be misleading, although most are less extreme than Barnett Newman’s self-aggrandizing assertion, in a 1970 interview, that “about twenty-five years ago . . . painting was dead. . . . I had to start from scratch as if painting didn’t exist.” Usually, the history of post-war American art is recounted as the tale of a generation of gifted New York–based artists, the majority of them young, who translated the innovations of such important European predecessors as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró into a radical, expansive language of emotionally charged abstraction. That is to say, the Americans invented an unprecedented kind of modernist painting and sculpture, and shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York.
The international influence of American post-war art cannot be questioned.
Little credit has been given to the formative influence of the Abstract Expressionists’ immediate precursors on this side of the Atlantic, the adventurous American artists who embraced and advanced modernist ideas in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of us obsessed curators and art historians have long striven to correct this and give these pioneers their due. One of the most notable of these scholars is my distinguished colleague William C. Agee. Since the late 1960s, he has organized numerous revealing exhibitions and written persuasively about American modernists in an awe-inspiring list of projects that includes, among many others, “The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America” at the Whitney Museum; a Stuart Davis retrospective at the Metropolitan; the touring exhibit “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning and their Circle, 1927–1942”; and the Stuart Davis catalogue raisonné, plus equally important studies of other American masters such as Hans Hofmann, Sam Francis, and Kenneth Noland. (Full disclosure: I’ve collaborated with Agee on many of these exhibitions and publications.)
Now Agee has summed up his lifetime’s preoccupations in Modern Art in America: 1908–1968, an insightful, idiosyncratic overview of the most provocative painting and sculpture made by Americans during roughly the first half of the twentieth century. Agee describes the time span under review as “the richest, most dynamic period of American art.” His book is intended to survey “the best of modern art in America made by four generations of exceptionally talented artists” during these years, illustrated both by familiar examples “examined in new contexts” and “little or virtually unknown works.” The concentration is on painting and sculpture, with a nod to photography and architecture, and some attention to key exhibitions, dealers, and institutions that focused on modernist art. It must be pointed out that sculpture gets rather short shrift, compared to painting, and that, despite Agee’s inclusiveness, there are a few surprising omissions. Frustration sometimes arises because specific works of art that are mentioned and discussed are not always illustrated, the many large and small plates in the handsomely produced book notwithstanding, although, in compensation, the color in the included images is usually very accurate. But these are minor annoyances. Part wide-ranging history and part rumination on deeply held convictions, lucidly and evocatively written, Modern Art in America first impresses us with its high aspirations and then impresses us even more by largely fulfilling its ambitions.
Modern Art in America is organized by decades, yet it is not a straightforward, linear history. Throughout the book, Agee circles back to the work of particular artists, to examine what, for example, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, and Hans Hofmann were doing at various stages of their long careers. He concentrates on relationships among artists, at times noting direct cause and effect, such as the teenage Davis’s being sent out to discover the modern city—his lifelong subject—by his teacher, the Ashcan School painter Robert Henri. At other times, Agee makes subtle conceptual and visual connections across time, alerting us to, say, the pervasive allusions to landscape and light, in various guises, in John Marin’s Cubist-inflected seascapes, Mark Rothko’s color-based abstractions, and Hopper’s late interiors. Agee is sensitive to how particular works of art can affect the artists who study them, detailing, for example, Davis’s changing responses to Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911), when he first saw it in the 1913 Armory Show, and after its acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949.
The path to modernism in America was different than in Europe.
Agee defines modernism in painting as a shift from recording the visible to “a charting of internal, emotional experience,” with “the life of the paint, its energy and dynamism” becoming an important aspect of the work. He notes that the path to modernism in America was different than in Europe and suggests that its trajectory in the United States embraces a number of categories and themes, which he traces over the book’s half-century or so: color, light, landscape, abstract vs. figurative, realism, and the spiritual and the cosmos. Agee explains his choice of starting date by asserting that in 1908 “American art began to forge a specific, coherent and definable modern identity,” citing the work of Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, Arthur Dove, John Sloan, and George Bellows, and pointing out the effect on American artists in Europe, that year, of Matisse’s short-lived school and the Stein family’s opening their startling collections to visitors. (Note to my friend Bill: you might have given more credit to Michael and Sarah Stein as collectors, particularly of Matisse’s work, and their salons. Gertrude wasn’t the only game in town.) In 1908, too, Alfred Stieglitz held his first, admittedly modest, exhibition of European modernism; the Ashcan School painters, known as The Eight, had an important show; and Henry Ford’s Model T was being mass produced. The choice of 1968 as the closing date of Agee’s survey was dictated, he says, by the way social change, here and abroad, disrupted the established order, including the course of American art.
Agee constantly considers the bigger picture, drawing threads between large continuities of ideas over time and in different places, and noting, as well, disruptions and changes in attitude, such as the new interest in neo-Classicism following the cataclysm of World War I or the combination of triumphant bravado and Cold War anxiety that helped define America after World War II. Agee contextualizes the pioneer American modernists by acknowledging the influence of European innovators such as Paul Cézanne, Matisse, the German Expressionists, and the Cubists on such well-known artists as Marin, Hartley, and Max Weber, all of whom were in Europe early in the twentieth century and absorbed first-hand the lessons of the most advanced art of the time. But he discusses, too, the work of some of their less familiar colleagues, such as Alfred Maurer, Patrick Henry Bruce, and Arthur B. Carles, innovative painters and inventive colorists who also were part of the European avant-garde of the period. Agee is distressed by the lack of attention paid to such deserving but still relatively obscure figures and, throughout Modern Art in America, reminds us of their achievements, pointing to the machine-inspired abstractions of Morton Livingston Schamberg in the Teens, and to Janet Sobel’s calligraphic webs and Arnold Friedman’s eerie, richly textured landscapes in the 1940s. This omnivorous approach can produce wonderful surprises, such as a reproduction of a tough synthetic cubist still life, Untitled (Still Life with Artist’s Portfolio and Bowl of Fruit) (ca. 1914–18) by Andrew Dasburg,all densely textured, layered planes in a sophisticated, original palette of pinks, oranges, red-browns, and grays, sparked with green. Since Dasburg is best known for the less-than-inspired, angular landscapes and pueblo scenes that he produced after moving to Taos, New Mexico, in 1918, the image in Modern Art in America makes us think differently about its author.
Admirably broad as Agee’s reach is and careful as he is to recognize the worth of under-acknowledged, accomplished practitioners, he is most informative and eloquent about the artists whose work most deeply engages him. He is enthusiastic about the Synchromists, the Paris-based young Americans Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald Wright, who showed their color-based geometric abstractions at the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in 1913, and issued a manifesto that, we learn, “challenged the supremacy of French art, claiming their own art was far more advanced than any other, and proclaiming Impressionism and all other recent art movements outmoded relics of the past.” “One can only admire their brashness,” Agee adds, deadpan, “the first frontal attack on French art in American history.” He expands the discussion to include the Synchromists’ contemporaries, both European—Robert and Sonia Delaunay—and American—Patrick Henry Bruce and Marsden Hartley—declaring that the Synchromists should be seen “in the context of a growing use of pure color in the service of a modern abstracting art.” To support this point, a brushy, luminous 1913 abstraction of Hartley’s—a favorite of Agee’s—is vividly evoked. He describes the way the painting’s varied hues are “vibrant with textures of different sorts as [Hartley’s] hand moves over the surface, reacting like a Geiger counter to momentary records of energy and feeling.” Agee characterizes Hartley’s touch as “sublime,” noting that “the depth of feeling recorded in the paint itself can be said to be at the heart of all his best work.”
Stuart Davis’s complex evolution and achievement is exhaustively discussed—more so than just about any other artist in the book. Agee describes Davis’s “most profound contribution to modern art” as “the development of a full-blown Cubist vocabulary that took many distinct turns throughout his life.” But he reminds us, too, that Davis “had an impact on, and was in turn affected by, virtually every movement in modern art, from Ashcan Realism to Dada, Cubism, Matissean color construction, mural painting, Abstract Expressionism, color field, and Art and Language, in a career that extended from 1910 until his death in 1964.” (It’s interesting that Agee doesn’t mention Pop art, which Davis’s syncopated, brilliantly colored improvisations on modern life, including supermarket products, are often seen as anticipating.)
Agee is fascinated by the variousness of American art in the 1930s, from the social realism of the American Scene painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton, to Davis’s jazz-inspired, home-brewed Cubism, to the audacious Surrealist-inflected abstraction of David Smith. Agee sees the forward-looking artists of this era as planting “the seeds for the explosion of painterly abstraction after 1940, while producing a body of work of exceptional quality.” One remarkable group of eager, ambitious painters and sculptors, centered around the brilliant, erratic John Graham (born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski in Europe), included Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, Smith, Adolph Gottlieb, and Pollock. Graham, an adventurous painter who went often to Europe as a private dealer and authority on African sculpture, provided important information about advanced European art for his New York colleagues, most of whom did not have the means to travel. But Agee also stresses the significance of Graham’s own work—Cubist in the 1930s and, after 1942, meticulously figurative, in the manner of Ingres. He discusses Graham’s figures not as a rejection of modernism, but as a variant, linking Graham’s eerie self-portraits and busts of women to the haunting, non-literal figures and portraits painted by his close friends Gorky and de Kooning a decade earlier, as well as to de Kooning’s later notorious Women. Provocatively, Agee includes in this context the much older progressive figurative painter Walt Kuhn (who was still active throughout the 1940s and whose work Graham admired) and adds the apparently guileless, rigorously structured domestic scenes of Fairfield Porter, our latter-day Vermeer, as a return to figure painting in the 1950s.
Full attention is accorded to the paintings of the German émigré Hans Hofmann, who is often discussed primarily as an important teacher. Agee observes that in the 1930s, when Hofmann, recently arrived in America, returned to painting after years of concentrating on drawing because of the demands of running a school, “color poured on to, down and across Hofmann’s paintings of interiors as if a torrential flood of paint had been let forth from the depths of body and soul.” Discussing Hofmann as a colorist seems inevitable, given the way he constructed his paintings with contrasts of surface, shape, and hue; it’s less expected to find Hopper—“a more conservative aspect of modernism”—treated the same way. But, Agee points out, light and color are equivalent, and Hopper, in addition to achieving in his paintings “an overwhelming feeling of quietude, of stillness and silence,” was also a master manipulator of indoor and outdoor light. Witness the eerie Rooms by the Sea (1951). “The most compelling element,” Agee writes, “is the block of light, as physical as the architecture.”
The quirkiness of Modern Art in America is part of what makes it so valuable.
Agee exults in the high achievement of the best American artists of the 1950s and bravely tackles the increasing multivalence of the art of the 1960s, dealing with everything from Helen Frankenthaler’s floods of lush color to Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light installations, to Donald Judd’s minimalism and Robert Smithson’s land art, while also acknowledging the challenge to traditional sculpture proposed by Eva Hesse’s soft, organic assemblages. At the same time, he reminds us that Davis, who lived until 1964, was producing some of the best paintings of his life in the first part of the decade.
Modern Art in America is so comprehensive and generally so strong that it seems churlish to complain about anything. But the excellences underscore the few infelicities. Sculpture, it seems, is not Agee’s strong suit. He’s more responsive to the nuances of shape, surface, and color in paintings. Although he discusses David Smith at some length, as this extraordinary sculptor’s remarkable work deserves, he falls back on general description, rather than calling attention to the way the sculptures are articulated as three-dimensional, confrontational objects. Smith’s evolution as a sculptor is only hinted at. Agee focuses on his use of color—something the artist admittedly set great store by, hoping to combine painting and sculpture into a new art form that, he said, “would beat either one,” but that wasn’t Smith’s main achievement. Similarly, given Agee’s admirable broad-mindedness in the artists he chooses to discuss, it’s strange that Philip Guston receives only a brief mention for an early figurative work. And while I’m at it, where is Stephen Greene, whose brooding, ambiguous abstractions of the 1960s and ’70s, with their unstable hints of figuration, now seem prescient of the concerns of many of today’s artists? Or Larry Poons? But these are quibbles. The quirkiness of Modern Art in America is part of what makes it so valuable. It’s not only a heroic effort, but also an intensely personal record of the meditation of one of our most acute and thoughtful observers on the art he cares most about, over a lifetime. That’s a lot.
1Modern Art in America: 1908–1968, by William C. Agee; Phaidon, 352 pages, $99.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 46
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