America's Cool Modernism

Exploring the 'cool' in American art in the early 20th century from O'Keeffe to Hopper.
Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH, Fri 23 March - Sun 22 July 2018

March 23, 2018
The clear, sharp, cold beauty of America

America's Cool Modernism seeks to open the door to an era of American art that may be new to many who visit the Ashmolean's new exhibition. It tells the story of a nation's artists seeking to define a national identity, one that can be distinguished from European artists who have influenced their work to this point. The modernism here reflects the machine age and the massive expansion and urbanisation America underwent in the early part of the 20th century. It leads to a cool style, one that is clean, precise and efficient, an emotional control that results in the removal of individuals from the cityscapes in paints, and an absence of brushstrokes in artistic works. It is a fascinating prospect, with almost too much information to take in on a single viewing, too many artists you would wish to look at more closely, too many exciting narrative strands to follow.

Loosely, this exhibition is divided into three sections. The first gallery presents abstract pictures that order the world into blocks of colour and form. These works brim with European influence, hewing towards cubism, as can be seen by Edward Steichin's 'Le Tournesol', a rare work from an artist who favoured photography and destroyed most of his paintings. The second gallery brings the Precisionists to the fore with a cool, detached style of clear lines and precise drawings. These are paintings of the industrial landscapes of the new city, finding order where there should be disorder. Nowhere is this most encompassed than with George Josimovich's 'Illinois Central'. In the final gallery the works move away from the city to the rural, embracing America's past in works such as Charles Sheeler's 'Americana'.

Most exciting in this exhibition is the sheer number of works that are so rarely seen in Europe, with artists here that have no presence in UK galleries. Edward Hopper doesn't really fit the narrative of the exhibition; his works are less precise, and evoke a more potent sense of possibility - but one hardly balks at the opportunity to see the three stunning works of his that are on display, and his inclusion opens up the exhibition in a fascinating way. While a clear through line is present across the works, there is a diversity to them and their style, even within a particular artist's work. The quartet of pieces by Georgia O'Keeffe reflect the art movement around her and it is fascinating to compare 'Black Abstraction' with 'East River from the Shelton Hotel', painted only a year apart.

Throughout the exhibition there are deliciously intriguing asides the exhibition presents before galloping on with its overarching narrative; there are potential exhibitions buried in each of the galleries. The changing relationship between photography and art that would lead to 'Straight Photography', is here represented by examples of Paul Strand's photography, his style now ubiquitous in the art form. Then there are the examples of the democratisation of art in the pre-WW2 era, with several prints featured and copies of Fortune magazine on display. There is much to be said about the movement in the 20th century to increase public access to art, driven by innovations in printing and reproduction, which this exhibition simply doesn't have the space for. Also, there are the two paintings taken from Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series. The only African American artist on display, Lawrence chronicled life in the city over the course of 60 paintings and this introduction leads one to want to learn more.

There is a lot to say about the Ashmolean's latest exhibition, almost too much. The exciting aspect is that you will be pulled through it by your own interests. If you are here for O'Keeffe and Hopper, the two most famous artists, you will be rewarded by striking works by each of these artists. But there is so much more on display. I haven't even touched on the fascinating precursor to Pop Art, Stuart Davis' 'Odol', or mentioned the brilliance of Chales Demuth's 'I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold'. There is no denying that for its quality and sheer volume of previously little-seen work, this exhibition is a must-see.

April 30, 2018

As a chronic sufferer of museum foot (that agonising ache in your feet that only happens in museums) I was reluctant go to this exhibition. The only good thing about it was that I did not get museum foot this time. Why? Because you can be in and out in less than fifteen minutes. It's that small.

'Oh. Is that it?' said my friend as we gazed quizzically at the Exit sign, thinking surely there's another gallery of these somewhat bland and uninspiring pictures somewhere. 'Already?'

We did the whole thing again, which was better because we weren't caught in the timed-entry throng and this time I tried to eavesdrop on the more culturally-minded spectators to glean something good from the trip.

I heard a man say, 'Hmm this is subtle' in a delighted way before saying absolutely nothing more on the subject, forcing me to lope off, dejected. The art was bad. It wasn't the good Hopper that I was hoping for (the colourful, famous stuff) and frankly it was like submissions of unpolished practice pieces real artists would use.

For £13 it just did not feel worthwhile.

'I forget that everything in London is bigger,' my friend mused. 'And better'.

'Want to look at some plates?' I said, pointing into some gallery full of plates on our way out.

'No thanks,' she said.

Bankrupt, we then went our separate ways, silently deciding never to waste money on museum trips ever again.

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