America's Cool Modernism
by Mark Rapaport
America's Cool Modernism: From O'Keefe to Hopper
The success of any exhibition is not just in being told what to feel, but to actually experience what's being conveyed through the objects on display. The Ashmolean’s latest exhibition, America’s Cool Modernism, does exactly that. It considers how American artists responded to the era of the 1920s and ’30s, with the US coming out of a major war and entering into economic collapse, but also trying to conceptualise the century to come. The 20th Century’s promise of machines, industrialisation and scientific progress all bled into a ‘coolness’, used by the exhibition as a synonym for sleekness, efficiency and detachment.
Walking around the exhibition, you begin to notice that the paintings have few, if any, people in them. The occasional figure, like in Edward Hopper’s Manhattan Bridge is distant with his face obscured, overshadowed by an industrial rail-line, concrete blocks and a rectangular city skyline. In other works, nature becomes sidelined; a sunflower is reduced to its basic yellow and green circles, its finer details ignored to make it appear more like a 1920’s photographer’s flash-bulb. The glimpses of brands and bright lights create landscapes manufactured by advertising agencies and film studios. As a participant in this scene, you begin to feel swallowed up by the iron and steel skyscrapers, and the cold aloofness of the modern American city.
Certainly, this is what the artists had been feeling themselves. While they inhabited places that were becoming filled with newly arrived immigrants and the rise of mass media, the collection of works demonstrate the collective loneliness felt inside a country in such flux. Within this void, some artists tried to carve out a new American identity, intentionally distinct from the violent and competing nationalisms on the other side of the Atlantic. Hartley’s Painting No. 50 appropriates Native American motifs of the teepee and vibrant patterns in a striking piece produced in Berlin at the height of the First World War. Another, Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold brings the rush of New York City into focus, honing in on a speeding fire truck emblazoned with a familiar-looking ‘No. 5’. In fact, New York City was Chanel’s first overseas market, where they spotted a growing desire for luxury goods in the new century.
Of course, the subjective experience of race in America, particularly during the period, can never be overlooked. Though black artist Jacob Lawrence portrayed figures in much of his work, the Ashmolean intentionally selected works that reflect the exhibition’s broader themes of isolation and change. Lawrence's depiction of a home in the south abandoned by those seeking a better life is followed up by a painting of newly established urban black communities titled The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north. They remain just out of sight, hidden behind colourful window shades in an attempt at portraying their collective individuality.
The exhibition is a result of three-year collaboration between the Ashmolean Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art, which loaned many of the works on display. As Director of the Ashmolean Dr Xa Sturgis notes, ‘It is an extraordinary privilege to borrow some of the greatest works ever made by American artists for this landmark exhibition’. The display shows thirty-five paintings that have never been to the UK, with many also on loan from the Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York. The Terra Foundation’s Dr Katherine Bourguignon highlights the significance of the works- ‘Decades before the Pop artists addressed consumerism and the American character, artists in the 1920s and ‘30s were dealing with these themes in remarkably modern images marked by emotional restraint.’ She continues, ‘These artists were actively seeking to create art that could be seen as authentically ‘American’’.
The exhibition’s theme of ‘cool’ comes to mean many things throughout the display. For some, the new century meant boldness, marked by development on a mass scale, convenience, luxury and grandeur. Engineering feats of skyscrapers and bridges became studies in geometry, and crowded cities became ordered and less chaotic. For other artists, such developments demanded a controlled emotional indifference, where the new architecture of the city dwarfed their distinct personalities. Fundamentally, the exhibition shows how new landscapes and ideas, and the promises of a new era inspired American artists to portray a new, essential attribute of the American character—modernity.
America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe To Hopper will be on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, between 23 March to 22 July. Entry is free University of Oxford students. More details here.