The history of 20th century art can seem much too complicated and difficult to follow, with its confusing succession of isms: Cubism, futurism, surrealism, expressionism, etc. What's this all about, anyway?
Well, there's no better way to understand art than to look at it, and the Baltimore Museum of Art is now offering an excellent opportunity to follow visually the art of the century's first half. Two new shows containing prints, drawings and photographs take us from the dawn of cubism to the threshold of abstract expressionism; those who want to cross the threshold need only visit the museum's modern wing to see how abstract expressionism developed from what went before it.
"Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction" is a traveling exhibit of Gorky works that shows him drawing on cubism and surrealism in his progress toward an abstract art. "The Cubist Generation," a complementary show drawn from the museum's own collections, deals with cubism and its influences on related movements.
It's better to start with the latter, which leads up to the Gorky. It begins with early cubist works by Picasso ("Still Life with Compote," 1909) and Braque ("Fox," 1911) in which we see the object being broken down into planes and facets and analyzed from different points of view at once. The extreme shallowness of illusionary space emphasizes the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane.
This was the first or "analytical" phase of cubism. Picasso's later "Glass and Packet of Cigarettes" (1920) comes from the second, or "synthetic," phase of cubism, in which form is less radically fragmented.
Cubism either led to or influenced much of the art that followed. Futurism, as seen in Gino Severini's "Dancer + Sea = Vase of Flowers" (1913), adds to cubism the idea of visually indicating motion as part of the image. But it's motion frozen, notes Jay M. Fisher, the museum's curator of prints, drawings and photographs. What the futurists called "lines of force" look more like the rendering of some abstract idea of movement than actual movement.
With its emotion-laden areas of deep black and its anguished, mask-like faces, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff's "The Three Kings" (1917) is really an expressionist picture. But some of its lines and planes indicate the influence of cubism. And Fisher, who organized the show, has included some photographs, including Paul Strand's "Lathe #1, New York" (1923), to show how even photographers thought of the object in cubist terms. Its influence was tenacious, appearing quite clearly in works as late as Albert Gleizes' "The Schoolboy" (1946).
Meanwhile, a remarkable series of drawings of the early 1930s shows Arshile Gorky progressing toward abstraction.
"Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction" contains more than 30 drawings the artist created between about 1930 and 1936 as studies for a mural that was never executed.
In developing his pictorial language, Gorky worked in a series of series, each containing several drawings. In the first, "Cubist Standing Figure" (1930-1933), the artist combines cubist elements taken from specific Picasso works with more idiosyncratic forms.
In subsequent works, the artist also incorporates more organic forms and combinations of forms reminiscent of surrealist work; they look almost but not quite identifiable. In a series of 10 drawings called "Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia" (about 1931-1936) we can see certain recognizable forms, especially a head at the right of the image, progress into almost unrecognizable abstraction. In the latest of the drawings, there are shapes that slip in and out of abstraction, now looking like mere shapes, now like otherworldly creatures with tiny eyes.
These two shows take us far into the development of art in the 20th century. Works just a stroll away, in the museum's modern art wing, take us further still. There, side by side, are Gorky's painting "The Unattainable" (1945) and Jackson Pollock's painting "Water Birds" (1943).
In Gorky's work, shapes have now become dynamic; instead of staying still, as in the 1930s drawings, they drift about. And Pollock's abstract lines and shapes also move, in a much less delicate, more emotion-driven way. Abstract expressionism is being born. One need only look around at the works of de Kooning, Frankenthaler and others to see where it went from here.
Abstraction and cubism
What: "Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction" and "The Cubist Generation"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 21
Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students; $1.50 ages
7 through 18
Call: (410) 396-7100