Here's the description of the show's concept from the Ashmolean's website:
"This is the first exhibition to explore the 'cool' in American art in the early 20th century, from early experiments in abstraction by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Paul Strand to the strict, clean precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth ... In the Jazz Age of the ‘roaring’ 20s, and the ensuing Great Depression of the 30s, many American artists expressed their uncertainty about the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of their country by producing work that had a cool, controlled detachment and a smooth, precise finish."
I wanted to quote that exactly, for a particular reason. It's a technically and no doubt academically accurate description of the artists in their proper context, of course. But my gut reaction - the way the work made me feel - was anything but cool and detached. To me, many of the pieces were possessed of a broiling energy, something seething beneath the surface - even in their spaces and silences.
Even Georgia O'Keeffe's rendition of a relatively serene East River is framed by industry, bisected in the exact centre of the picture by a smoke-belching chimney.
The exhibition includes several other O'Keeffe works, some of which marshal her swirling floral lines into abstraction. I was particularly struck by a painting actually called 'Black Abstraction' which appears to represent a migraine-like tunnel vision experience. Sweeping black curves around a small disc of light, I could recognise its monochromatic distance - but at the same time, to me it said mental malfunction, turmoil.
While the gallery is bookended to some extent by its 'headline' artists - Hopper's 'about-to-happen' atmospheres dominating the final section - perhaps the greatest pleasures of an exhibition like this are the discoveries you make along the way. Highlights for me included:
- The 'empty building' paintings of George Ault - especially 'Hoboken Factory'. The factory has two storeys, a lower level which appears to be the original 'traditional' warehouse-style building, but with a glass upper floor on top, presumably a later extension. As the accompanying text points out - the bottom half is in darkness, but the glass section radiates light - and this beneath glowering black clouds. Again, the technique suggests an unsettling, alien quality; so why did I find it fascinating on almost a horror-movie level? I can only say that I felt that light pulsing, so vividly was it rendered. It didn't feel like a mere optical illusion or surreal gesture - more that there was action in that building, something terrible happening that we cannot see.
- The magnificent etchings of Louis Lozowick, bending the straight lines of New York and Minneapolis into folds and cascades, somehow giving the cities back their three dimensions.
- More buildings without people from Niles Spencer, but here, like a kind of proto-pop-art Escher. The colours leap from the canvas and the lines / structures create their own movement (staircases, railings, angled roofs) so that your eyes constantly range around the pictures, occupying the scene yourself.
- The kinetic power and graphic-design sensibility of Charles Demuth - cryptic inscriptions; tilting skyscrapers and citadels; sun, shadow and neon signs. His depiction of a fire truck hurtling towards the onlooker (based on a poem by friend William Carlos Williams, or here, simply 'BILL') - not in any sense a realistic painting but a kind of Impressionist/Vorticist mash-up: the truck itself is an immaculately controlled, but still indistinct red shape - however, its shining 'No. 5' races relentlessly towards you, reaching you in three instantaneous flash-moments. The buildings at the side of the street seem upended in the chaos. Yes, the painting is immaculate - but doesn't its energy simply explode out of the frame?
- Perhaps the most telling images in the whole show are from Joseph Stella, who seems to sum up the otherworldliness of much of this work by conflating familiar urban sights with explicitly religious symbols: telegraph poles and wires become crosses, windows reflect coloured light, turning them into stained glass.
Was this movement of sorts an unconscious joint attempt to somehow contain these rapid developments that couldn't necessarily be controlled? The exhibition displays a fantastic tension between art that seems to embrace the change - etchings that show sun-streamed skyscrapers leaning outwards, imposing themselves on the viewer - and that which would almost suppress it - such as the rural yet pristine landscapes of Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford.
For me, the 'coolness' of this work was somehow fed through a modernism machine that generated excitement, foreboding, forward thinking, and paranoia. You can keep your distance all you like: the future is still coming for you.
Faster than you think, in fact: remember, the exhibition is only on until 22 July. (The catalogue is affordable, and handsome, with excellent reproductions - but all of this art, with its strange auras, deserves to be seen first-hand.) Here's the Ashmolean website, for more detail.
- Georgia O'Keeffe, ''East River from the Shelton Hotel', 1928
- Charles Demuth, 'I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold', 1928