What's hot in Germany: show of liberated U.S. art


BERLIN -- Berlin is plastered these days with posters inspired by a New York City fire truck in 1925.

The poet William Carlos Williams saw the fire truck and wrote a poem about it.

The artist Charles Demuth heard the poem and made a painting inspired by it.

And Demuth's "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" has become a landmark American painting.

Now it's one of the icons of this season's blockbuster show in Berlin, "American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993," which has people scrambling into Martin-Gropius-Bau museum.

Twentieth-century American art at the Gropius-Bau is all "modern," mostly abstract in one way or another, rarely realistic and virtually all created by aging, if not dead, white males.

Among the 66 artists in the show, there are just five women and two blacks. Missing are such worthies as Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Nancy Graves, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam and Romare Bearden.

This did not go unnoticed. "Guerrilla Girls" in gorilla masks

protested at the opening, passing out bananas to guests invited to an exhibit that was "90-percent women-free."

Christos M. Joachimides, the German curator of the show, says you can't change history and you can't impose a quota system.

"We show impressive women who had an decisive effect on American art," he says.

Georgia O'Keeffe (inevitably), Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman made the cut. Jean Michel Basquiat and David Hammons are the two blacks in the show.

Mr. Joachimides shares curatorial duties with Norman Rosenthal the Royal Academy of Art in London, where the show will run Sept. 17-Dec. 12 after it closes here July 25. They've assembled 251 artworks, many of them masterworks of American modernism.

The show begins with Marcel Duchamp (born in France), Man Ray and the Armory Show of 1913. The show at New York's 69th Regiment Armory introduced America to such modern masters as Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

Duchamp's futurist-cubist "Nude Descending a Staircase" was the most-censured sensation of the 1913 show. But American art was never the same afterward: The line into the modern had been crossed.

Next comes what Mr. Joachimides calls the period of incubation and exploration: Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell and Arshile Gorky.

The "triumph" of the New York School over Paris and the liberation of American art from Europe is the heart of the exhibit. Here are primal works of the artists of action painting and abstract expressionism: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still (who lived in Carroll County), David Smith and Philip Guston, among others.

On come Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns (with "Devise" from the Baltimore Museum of Art), Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, pop art, minimal art, conceptual art, land art, antiform art.

The show sort of dribbles out with Jeff Koons' basketball submerged in an aquarium tank.

So, Mr. Joachimides is asked, what is American about American art? It's big, he replies.

Jackson Pollock's 8-foot by 20-foot "Mural" of 1943 makes his point enormously. It's the centerpiece of the show, presented both as the opening gun of the abstract-expressionist campaign and as the victory salute.

Mr. Joachimides sees the abstract-expressionists as a continuation of the 19th-century landscape painters, awed and inspired by American vistas.

tTC His partner, Mr. Rosenthal, says "Mural" can be seen "as a stampede of buffalo driving across the plains of middle America."

Could be. Conveniently for both, Mr. Pollock was born in Cody, Wyo., and grew up on farms and ranches of the Big Sky Country.

The Gropius-Bau show is a must-see for Germans.

For an American who has kept half an eye cocked to American art, it's like meeting talented old friends who once seemed vital and exciting. They've mellowed, but they're still interesting, and it's nice to see them all in one place.

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