American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe

October 4, 2013

Ada Potter

The essential character of American art has been a mythology persuade and rewritten repeatedly since the countries inception. I guess this statement is true for most nations. But America in the 20th century has stood apart, or placed itself apart, from the rest of the world as a unique nation based on individual liberty and social justice. These founding myths have been exposed as such but continue to exist in America’s understanding of itself. This ideology has allowed us to think ourselves exceptional and our influence universally just and good. Thus, art institutions often venture into dangerous territory when they set up exhibitions that are meant to get at some fundamental truth about our complex nationhood. Exhibitions run the risk of glorifying and essentializing the complex terrain that makes up American identity. American Modern, now on view at MoMa, is refreshing in that it embraces exactly this complexity, while narrowing its focus to maintain a specificity of period and subject.

The show opens by immediately illustrating a diversity of representation. On the viewer's left is a wall of Stieglitz prints ranging from pointedly artistic expressions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands to more straight-on portraits of his contemporaries. To the right is a wall of romantically barren Hopper sketches. These textured, mostly graphite, studies depict quiet landscapes touched by a human presence, but often empty of any human beings.

Each section of wall has it’s own genre or subject matter. They range from still life to abstract painting, from rural life to urban and industrial landscapes. More surreal, abstract works made by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Charles Burchfield sit facing the realist paintings by Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper.

The photographs of Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz disrupt the hegemony of painting.  They take on the same subjects but approach them from very different perspectives. A faithfully drafted painting of a barn sits besides a small hazy photograph of a fence and farmyard. The Sheeler painting, Buck Country Barn, is meticulously lined. Planes of color meet bluntly. The red and white of the barn jumps next to the astroturf-colored grass. Chickens sit like like puffs of cotton in the yard, pecking at the ground. What the viewer might over look at first are the subtle, delicately hued shadows that fall on the barns walls. The sun, low in the sky, casts a dappled light through the limbs of trees. This light is present yet quite different in the small photograph by Strand entitled White Fence. The foreground made up of the black and white checkered pattern of a picket fence. This flatness is disrupted by the distant, soft outline of a farm seen through the shadowy light of trees.  The subtle narrative expressed in each work gives dimension to a seemingly monolithic definition of American-ness.  The Farm as a crucial marker of our nation is explored in a multiplicity of subtle detail.

American Modern narrows its focus to works made from 1915 to 1950. The Modernist perspective during this period is beginning to coalesce. Art for art sake is beginning to take hold and an interest in formal qualities of the medium is beginning to germinate.  This specific frame allows for a cohesion without uniformity. The works feel young, exploratory and fresh despite their being at least 65 years old.