The modernizing of American art Art: BMA exhibit will show how the nation grew from an outpost of the art world into its epicenter.


Between 1910 and 1950, America underwent profound and irreversible changes. We fought in two world wars and went through the worst depression in our history. We experienced an immense growth in industry. We saw the coming of the automobile, movies, radio and television. And we witnessed a huge migration from rural to urban America in response to industrialization, the Depression and World War II.

Not surprisingly, art in this country underwent similar upheaval. In 1910, America was an outpost of the art world; its center was Paris, where Matisse and Picasso caught the eye of forward-looking collectors such as Gertrude Stein and Baltimore's Cone sisters. By 1950, the center of the art world was New York. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko were among the leaders of the New York School, and abstract expressionism was the latest thing.

What happened?

What happened is the subject of "The Face of America: Modernist Art 1910-1950," the ambitious exhibit that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art Wednesday. Completely drawn from the museum's collections and containing about 200 works of art, it has been a year and a half in the planning and includes objects from many departments in many media: painting and sculpture; prints, drawings and photographs; books and journals; Native American art; textiles and decorative arts.

It will show that the face of America was drawn with many lines. Among its objects, many of which have rarely been on exhibit, will be textiles by Saul Steinberg, the famous New Yorker cartoonist, and weaving samples by Dorothy Liebes, whose works incorporated cellophane, plastics, bamboo, mohair and leather, among other things.

There will be a bowl by Nampeyo, the Tewa/Hopi potter who became one of the most famous of Indian artists in her own lifetime (about 1860-1942), and who was invited by the Santa Fe Railroad to demonstrate pottery making at the Chicago Railroad Exposition of 1898. And a jar by Maria Martinez (about 1887-1980) of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, who participated in World's Fairs as early as 1904. Forty-eight years later the renowned British potter Bernard Leach made a pilgrimage to visit her, bringing along Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, and a quarter of a century after that Leach wrote Martinez, "We have never forgotten you and we never will."

From designer Russel Wright (1904-1976), there will be examples of "American Modern" tableware, a design so radical that when it appeared at the end of the 1930s Emily Post attacked it in Time magazine.

There will be photographs by some of the greatest American names in the field: Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Roy DeCarava, Dorothea Lange, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston. And paintings and sculpture by everyone from Georgia O'Keeffe to Jackson Pollock, George Bellows to Jacques Lipchitz, Jacob Lawrence to Charles Sheeler, as well as Baltimoreans Reuben Kramer, Herman Maril, Grace Turnbull and Charles Walther.

The show has involved five curators, but it was the brainchild of Brenda Richardson, deputy director for art. "I know the strength of the collection in this period," she says, "and we don't ordinarily have the occasion to present it so that the public understands the relationships between styles and cultures and media."

Complex developments

It will occupy all of the BMA's temporary exhibition galleries. While Richardson says its organization will be essentially chronological, along the way several key aspects of the period will be explored to give viewers a fuller sense of its complex developments and interactions.

Early in the century, many American artists traveled to Europe to experience modern art, but the American public's introduction to European art came with the famous New York Armory Show of 1913. It featured both American and European artists, but it was the European postimpressionist, fauvist and cubist works that drew the most attention. They were enormously controversial, even among artists.

"Charles Walther from Baltimore was the only artist interviewed by the Baltimore Sun at the time who thought that cubism was terrific," says Richardson. "All the rest thought it was a fraud and would be gone overnight."

How wrong they were, as can be seen by modernist-influenced works by Charles Shaw, Max Weber and Ruth Reeves, among others. American artists didn't just copy, however; often they took inspiration from Europe and blended it with other influences. "Stuart Davis brought contemporary signage and contemporary jazz into his work," Richardson says. "His 'Bull Durham' [1921] is not only about cubism. It's also about advertising in America."

Advances in industry and technology were enormously influential the "machine age" of the 1920s and 1930s. Artists known as precisionists, including Charles Sheeler ("Manchester," 1949) and Ralston Crawford ("Theatre Roof," 1937), were inspired by the crisp lines of skyscrapers and the modern design of machines; and photographers responded, too.

"The camera, a machine itself, was the perfect tool," says Jan Howard, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs. "And the clarity with which photography could be done was admired. Bridges, machines, skyscrapers were very much a part of the vocabulary of photographers," as demonstrated by Paul Strand's "Lathe Head" (1923), Ralph Steiner's "Ford Front" (1929) and Alma Lavenson's "Carquinez Bridge" (1933).

"But the opposite also happened," Richardson points out. "There is a negative influence of modernism in the painting and printmaking of the regionalist artists, who are seeing the country change and don't want it to change." Regionalist artists such as Thomas Hart Benton ("Jesse James," 1936), John Steuart Curry ("Prize Stallions," 1938) and Grant Wood ("In the Spring," 1939) -- depicted rural and small town America in the 1930s and 1940s.

Black artists

Especially during the Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project provided employment for more than 5,000 artists, including many black artists. Federal support of the arts was of major importance during this period, and the BMA has a rich treasure of almost prints made in the government program and deposited at the museum in 1943.

"The WPA project enabled many artists, and particularly black artists, to have their first exposure to the technology of making prints," says Jay M. Fisher, curator of prints, drawings and photography. "An example would be Elmer Brown, one of the artists working in Cleveland, whose 'Untitled (Hobos)' [about 1940] is typical social commentary. It shows how blacks were having a difficult time surviving. The project encouraged that kind of imagery, and because the works were included in a lot of exhibits people learned more about the lives of black people."

Sargent Johnson, another black artist, however, is represented by a quite different image. "His lithograph 'Dorothy' [1938] shows a cubist, abstract approach, faceting the figure into planes."

Works by American Indian artists of the period can reflect both the modernist impulse and the Native American heritage. "The works of Martinez and Nampeyo look remarkably like modern paintings in their decoration," says Richardson. "But Nampeyo was also taken to an archaeological dig. She was one of the first people to see ancient pottery created by her own ancestors, and her own account it had a stunning influence on her work."

Indian art also had an opportunity to influence modern art, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art's 1941 show "Indian Art of the United States." Organized by Rene d'Harnoncourt, who would later become the museum's director, it brought together 1,000 works of Indian art and had an impact on many artists.

"Some still say it was the greatest exhibition ever done in an American museum of American Indian art," says Richardson. "To it came people like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, and from that moment they talked about it. Max Weber did an article, and so did Marsden Hartley. Weber said the 1941 show was a stunning example of the original surrealists. He saw in that work something that had resonance for the way he thought and worked.

"Pollock talks about how watching demonstrations by Indian sand painters inspired him to try drip painting." The show will include Pollock's "Water Birds" (1943), which may be his earliest drip painting.

By highlighting the many currents and cross-currents that were running through American art between 1910 and 1950, the show in turn reflects the many currents and cross-currents in American life.

"This is a really terrific intermixing of cultures," Richardson says. "America stopped being just one thing and was all different things, and all different things in dialogue."

Art show

What: "The Face of America: Modernist Art 1910-1950"

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 Dec. 29

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 10/06/96

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