America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s edited by Judith Barter (2017)

This is the book accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy of 45 or so oil paintings from the 1930s designed to give you an overview of the many different, competing and clashing visions of American art during that troubled decade, what the foreword, rather surprisingly describes as ‘aesthetically, perhaps the most fertile decade of the twentieth century.’

It significantly expands your knowledge and understanding of the period by including illustrations of many more paintings than are in the show, along with comparison art works from contemporary and Old Master Europe, as well as photos, sketches, architects plans and related visual information.

The book is structured around five long essays by experts in the period, each of which is fascinating and informative in equal measure (the writers being Judith A. Barter, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Annelise K. Madsen, Sarah L. Burns and Teresa A. Carbone). I picked it up for £15, a snip considering the high quality of the reproductions and the intelligence of the commentary and analysis.

Regionalism versus modernism

The squabble between the Regionalists and the New York-based modernists is only mentioned for a minute or so on the exhibition audioguide, but spills across several of the essays here. This allows you to understand its history, main participants, the arguments on either side, to weigh their merits, as well as considering the whole thing’s relevance to the present day.

Regionalism championed the depiction of realistic scenes of rural and small-town America primarily in the Midwest and Deep South. It was popular and populist. It defined itself against the modernism imported from Europe by New York-based artists, despite the fact that the trio of artists who became most associated with Regionalism – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry – had all made at least one study visit to Europe and were well aware of developments there.

Regionalism is itself subsumed under a broader term – the American Scene – which also covers ‘Social realism’ paintings, also realistic and figurative in nature, but more committed to the world of urban work than the predominantly rural Regionalist ethos. If it’s about small town life it’s American regionalism; if it’s a realistic work about the city, about industrial workers, and especially if it emphasises class consciousness, then it’s American Social Realism.

The most famous example of Regionalism is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts in a minutely detailed style reminiscent of early Flemish painters, a romantically unromantic vision of the gaunt, upright honest Mid-Western farmer. In the same spirit, though softer edged, is his Daughters of the Revolution (1932), its unflatteringness easy to confuse with a type of realism. Others of his rural pictures shown here are more gently bucolic:

The most fervent regionalist was Thomas Hart Benton. In the exhibition he’s represented by paintings of rural, especially Southern, life depicted with a distinctive wriggly serpentine style.

  • Cradling wheat by Thomas Hart Benton (1938) Note the wriggly lines in the clouds, the clothes, the distant hill.

But the book adds hugely to our understanding by expanding on his activities as a muralist, works which, by definition, can’t be shown in travelling art exhibitions. The New Deal administration, via its huge Public Works of Art Project, helped fund and commission a vast range of public art for public spaces – city halls, post offices, railway stations – across America. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. Benton was a leader in the field, producing works like America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In these he combines his sinewy, sinuous way with the human body with a kind of muscular social realist style to portray a fascinating cross-section of American activity and enterprise.

Benton not only painted, he engaged in a fierce polemic with a leader of the New York modernists, Stuart Davis, decrying modernism as effeminate, chaotic, elitist and un-American. You can see why his Mid-Western sponsors and many left-wing-minded artists and writers (some influenced by the new dogma of Socialist Realism emanating from the Soviet Union) would support his easily accessible, heroic depictions of the working man and woman, as the real America.

But of course they were up against New York, with its sheer size (with a population of 7 million, by far the largest US city) and its entrenched, articulate and well-publicised intellectual and artistic sets, such as the circle around critic and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (which included the artists Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe) or George L.K. Morris and the American Abstract Artists group.

It was the modernist painter Stuart Davis who ended up defending cosmopolitan modernism against Benton’s Regionalism, in a series of lectures, pamphlets, articles and a few bad-tempered personal encounters – attacking Regionalism as populist, demagogic, conservative even reactionary in form, naive, simple-minded and so on. He was even involved in a petition drawn up by New York art students to have one of Benton’s murals destroyed, because of its alleged stereotyping of African Americans. They hated each other.

Above all, the New York modernists thought Regionalism was holding America back, restraining and imprisoning American art and thought in a utopian fantasy of the past. It was provincial in the worst sense of the word, because it limited American culture to fantasies of a fast-disappearing rural reality while the entire world was urbanising and the great capitals – Paris, London, Rome, Berlin – were developing dazzling new techniques, styles and methods which it would be fatal to ignore.

Why go backwards when the rest of the world was hurtling into the new, they argued. America, above all other countries, should throw off the past and embrace the future.

There are several ways to think about this:

1. On purely personal terms, which do you enjoy most – now? To be honest, I like Grant Wood’s cartoony works and am impressed by Benton’s murals, idealised and muscular representatives of the spirit of the age. Whereas I like the overall impact of Davis’s work – extraordinarily bright and jazzy – but don’t respond to any individual work of his as strongly.

2. In terms of the debate, who do you think was right, at the time? Again, I’m inclined to think the American Scene artists depicted the country and its cultural and political moment better than Davis and the other wannabe modernists. They were right for their time. The Public Works of Art Project wanted art for the broadest mass of the public, which would reflect their local area, their local history, which would provide a unifying focus for thousands of communities across the States. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. It seems unlikely that a thousand variations on Davis’s watered-down Paris abstractions could have done that.

3. Who won? With the benefit of hindsight we know that Regionalism had nowhere to go: as America became more fully industrialised during the Second World War, it became more urbanised and rural life became more and more remote from most Americans. The Regionalist artists proved incapable of developing their style: even at the time it was acknowledged to be a romanticised, idealised vision which was actually far removed from the brutal reality of the Dustbowl droughts which were afflicting the southern states. (Captured in one bleak and almost science fiction painting here, Our American Farms (1936) by Joe Jones.) Regionalism proved to be in every way a dead end.

4. Also, in the new atmosphere of the Cold War, the Social Realism of much American Scene art came to look suspiciously like the same kind of thing being churned out by the Soviet Union and her satellites. When the House Un-American Activities Committee got round to investigating artists in the 1950s, it was the Social Realists they accused of being dangerous subversives: in total some 350 artists were accused by the committee of being communists or harbouring unhealthy left-wing tendencies. In the event, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock et al was to take the art world by storm at the end of the 1940s and, with government help, transform American aesthetics. Regionalism became an isolated backwater in the history of art.

5. However, studying the debate in some detail throws up surprising insights into our present situation, where a demagogic president has been elected on a platform of appealing to ordinary folk, especially the working class disenfranchised by globalisation, and railing against Big City corruption and cosmopolitanism. There is unemployment – 4.7% (though nothing approaching Depression-era figures, which at their worst had 30% of the workforce without jobs). There’s disillusion with the conventional parties and a rise in racism and xenophobia. Powerful reminders that so many of a country’s political or social issues never really go away but are reborn in each generation in new disguises.

The above is a partial summary of the first of the five essays in the volume. The other four:

  • Transatlantic Expressions
  • 1930s Modernism and the use of history
  • Painting the American wasteland
  • Bodies for the 1930s

are just as in-depth and illuminating, adding to our understanding of a host of other artists of the time.

These include lesser known figures like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dover, Charles Green Shaw, Millard Sheets, Doris Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Walt Kuhn, Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, Archibald Motley, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Paul Sample – as well as, for me, the standout artist of the era – the great Georgia O’Keeffe, with her triumphant marriage of the distinctive New Mexico landscape with an unsettling modernist sensibility.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

New names

Presumably familiar to any student of American art, the following were artists who I first learned about at the exhibition and who then especially benefited from the longer treatment and further illustrations provided in this book:

Charles Sheeler

Represented in the show by his wonderful linear depiction of the River Rouge Ford Motor factory – American landscape (1930) – Sheeler is explored in further detail in the book. Not only did he produce these wonderful linear, monumental evocations of pure architecture, but also took many modernist photographs of industrial buildings, interiors and machines. Just my kind of thing.

But Sheeler is also one of the beneficiaries of the well-known phenomenon that some art works which are easy to overlook in the flesh, look much better in reproduction, in book form. Thus the exhibition – divided into 8 or 9 themes – has one devoted to interiors, generally depicting old-fashioned styles and furnishings, and it would be easy to overlook Sheeler’s item in the set, Home Sweet Home. But the book reproduces it in big and lovely colour detail and highlights the continuity between the fascination with geometry and lines evinced in his well-known industrial photos and paintings, and his more recherche interest in traditional fabrics, Shaker furniture and so on, which combine in this quiet but mesmeric interior.

Aaron Douglas

Represented by one work in the show, the impressive mural Aspiration, in the show, the book gives a lot more about his life and work – and searching the internet reveals a brilliantly dazzling talent. Douglas uses a kind of Art Deco silhouette-based style, flooded by geometric washes of pastel colours, to depict an amazingly bold, explicit overview of the African American story, from Africans in Africa dancing and celebrating, their capture into slavery, transport across the seas, to African Americans throwing off their shackles and then Ayn Rand-style monuments of them contributing to the building of the modern (1930s) city with its outline of soaring skyscrapers.

Conclusion

This is a genuinely interesting book, not just about American art but about a pivotal moment in American history. By the end you are ready to believe the claim made at the start (several times) that the 1930s was ‘the most artistically creative and important period of the twentieth century’ (p.24).


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition brings together 45 big oil paintings (no prints or sculptures) to provide an overview of American painting from the 1930s (with a handful spilling into the early 1940s).

After the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Decade – the 1930s were of course marked by the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broadly speaking many (but not all) artists’ interests moved away from European-inspired Modernism or from images of the glamorous high life, to the use of figurative approaches to depict a more realistic, not to say downbeat, world.

Industrial America

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company opened the biggest factory in the world at River Rouge, Detroit. Artist Charles Sheeler spent weeks taking photos of the plant and the landscape around it before beginning work on a series of paintings. I’m a sucker for straight lines, diagrams and strong draughtsmanship and also the romanticism of industrialisation and big machines, so I think this painting is marvellous. No people. ‘Surreally silent’, to quote the catalogue.

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Next to it hangs Suspended power (1939). The commentary for the exhibition is relaxed and chatty, devoid of the usual curatorspeak, instead giving interesting background to the works. For example, after Sheeler’s visit, the Depression hit the plant hard and a wave of redundancies led to serious unemployment and a spike in suicides in Detroit. Unemployed workers marched on the plant in what became known as the Ford Hunger March, or the Ford Massacre, because four of the marchers were shot dead by the Dearborn Police Department and Ford security guards, and another 60 were injured. Shortly afterwards the famous Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera arrived, commissioned by Ford to produce some murals of the plant and its workers.

Many of the artists were committed to the new socially conscious political movements, the social idealism of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, or more left-wing Popular Front and even Communist ideas imported from abroad. This theme is epitomised by Alice Neel’s portrait of communist Trade Unionist and agitator Pat Whalen (1935). Joe Jones was a communist who painted scenes of everyday proletarian life, like Roustabouts (1934).

Street life

The 30s were the first great period of talking pictures, which some critics look back to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As well as glamorous portrayals of high life in the musicals of Fred Astaire and so on, the decade also saw the emergence of violent crime movies about Prohibition gangsters and, as the 30s turned into the 40s, the development of what a French critic later called films noirs, gritty crime thrillers depicting a tough, dog-eat-dog world of crime and underworld in the big cities. This too is caught in contemporary art.

An oblique light was shed on this world (as on everything) by the famous artist Edward Hopper, a couple of whose works are here including New York Movie (1939). As in so many Hopper paintings the focus is on one person, looking down or detached, contemplative, detached from the realistically depicted scene around them. Up close it’s interesting to note the thick, rather ragged gestural use of paint: prints always smooth this out, flatten and simplify (and beautify) images which are, in the flesh, a little more roughly finished and, somehow, hesitant.

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

African American artists and subjects

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition of American prints which features a whole room devoted to African American printmakers and artists, with the commentary emphasising that many feel their story has not been told and the black experience written out of American art and culture. So it was a surprise to see the number of works here about black Americans or by them. These later accounts seem to forget about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when the Harlem neighbourhood of New York was home to the ‘New Negro Movement’ and a cultural centre for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.

Far from being ignored by white authorities etc, black artists were supported. Aaron Douglas’s enormous mural , Attraction, was commissioned by the Federal Government to hang in the Hall of Negro Life at the Texan Centennial of 1936. It shows black Americans rising above the shackles of the past and aspiring to a bright new future. There is William H Johnson’s piece, Street Life, Harlem (1940), which does what it says on the tin, showing an African American couple on a street corner.

Far away from the buzz of city life was the harsh life of sharecroppers in the South, tied to land they didn’t own and forced to work punishing hours to grow cotton which was owned and sold by the rich landowner, who allowed his workers a pittance to survive on.

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

And, of course, there was the out-and-out racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrible lynchings and murders dealt out to blacks by murderous thugs.

Country life

The poster, book and exhibition itself are dominated by probably the most famous American painting, Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930). It’s never left North American shores before. As a big fan of late medieval art I was delighted to learn that so was Wood and this double portrait contains subtle references to the late medieval/Northern Renaissance tradition: in the ugliness of the faces, the tremendous attention to detail of the clothes. It even refers to Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait a little in the way the man is looking at the viewer while the woman is looking away.

I hadn’t realised the word Gothic refers to the Gothic lancet window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The commentary draws attention to the bombardment of vertical lines, on the face of the building, the thin supports to the porch, the upright planks in the red barn, the upright lines in the man’s shirt and denim dungarees, and the shiny prongs of the fork, as well as the vertically elongated stretching of their faces. Even the spire peeking out over the trees to the left. All this is growing up, tall and strong, from the good solid American earth.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

It was a haunting image even at the time, because so many nativists felt that the white settler pioneer and farmer spirit was being lost a) in the flood of urbanisation and city culture b) by the devastation inflicted by the great Dustbowl environmental disaster and the catastrophic collapse in prices for farm goods. But anyone expecting harsh realism of something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother (1936) is in for a surprise. Nothing here has anything like that intensity. In fact, although the audiocommentary includes an intense description of the destructiveness of a Dustbowl sandstorm, the actual paintings on display are lush and green.

And Grant Wood, with half a dozen works in the show, emerges as by far the most fun and entertaining artist, some of his works skidding good humouredly over the border between art and cartoon-style entertainment. Thus:

The last two could be illustrations for a children’s book. The Daughters hover somewhere between fine art and satire, but it’s an impressively conceived and beautifully painted work, just like American Gothic, it rewards close attention to the fine brushlines and strokes.

International politics

What Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s was intensely politicised, not only by the apparent failure of capitalism in many Western countries, and the rising power of communist parties, but by the fraughtness of the international scene, where the League of Nations proved powerless to stop the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. This is referenced in several internationalist works including this depiction of the Fascist bombing of Guernica, done in the style of a Renaissance roundel by, say, Titian or Raphael.

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

European modernists

There’s a section on American artists striving to be avant-garde who are in fact pretty obvious clones of their European originals.

There’s a section on American surrealists i.e. American artists adapting European visions of collapsed buildings, melting structures or faces, to the American scene. OK, but not convincing.

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

The commentary explains that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton had a famous row about the future of American art, Benton declaring himself an ‘enemy of Modernism’ and asserting the future lay in manly depictions of real working lives (as per his Cotton pickers), Davis championing his variation on sophisticated European Modernism, which Benton found effeminate. Benton quit New York and moved to the mid-West, where he painted successful murals and was associated with the art movement known as Regionalism, which flourished in the 1930s and petered out during the war.

Looked at from 2017 the squabble seems funny and futile, symptomatic of so much political bickering which was to be swept away by the titanic upheaval of World War Two, and then the hardening of lines during the Cold War. In artistic terms, the bitter feud between American Modernists and American Nativists was eclipsed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism, heavily supported by both the New York intelligentsia and (surprisingly) the Federal government, which used it as a weapon against the deadening cult of Social Realism in the Soviet bloc. Then it was the 60s and Pop and then – whoosh – the floodgates to all kind of conceptual and post-modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, as in every period, there are artists who stand apart from social and economic trends. Georgia O’Keefee, wife of New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and heavily involved in the New York artistic scene, first visited New Mexico in 1929 and thereafter spent part of every year on ranches in the desert. Here she developed a unique style combining found objects with stylised depictions of the sun-baked landscape.

I found this work by O’Keeffe to be almost the only really grown-up, fully-formed, distinctive work in the exhibition. For my money, although lots of the others are good and interesting – in their different ways I really enjoyed the cartoon Grant Wood and the moody Edward Hopper – nonetheless, O’Keeffe struck me as the standout artist of the period.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

The future

There’s a striking early work by Jackson Pollock, from the period when he was still pursuing his own demons in the not-very-well-disguised style of Picasso. But already present are the torment, the swirling composition and the very wide landscape format which will form the basis of the drip paintings he began to paint in about 1947.

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

At a stroke (a drip and a splat) Pollock would invent the first authentic American art movement – Abstract Expressionism – the first artistic idea which owed nothing at all to European tradition and would itself open numerous doors to the explosion in American art in the 1960s and beyond.

This show acts as a kind of retrospective hors d’oeuvre to the massive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism the RA hosted last year. And the current exhibition of American Prints at the British Museum is a dazzling survey of new ways of seeing and making which opened up in the post-Pollock era. Together they form a kind of American trilogy.

From the vantage point of posterity – looking back past Minimalism and conceptualism and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, this American art from the 1930s bespeaks a country of huge geographical and cultural contrasts but all wedded to an essentially realistic tradition, or which has borrowed its modern art lock, stock and barrel from Paris. It is immensely enjoyable but all of it is dated, music from a lost world – with the one exception of O’Keeffe whose work, in my opinion, still stands tall today.

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long and fruitful life, from 1887 to 1986, dying aged 98. She is, according to the exhibition blurb, a ‘foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’. This is an appropriately big exhibition, filling 14 rooms with works representing all periods of her career and covering all her major ‘themes’, taken in more or less chronological order. It also includes contemporary books and magazine articles about her, as well as the work of several of the major photographers she knew or worked with.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Room 1. The early years O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. She came to New York in 1907, studied with various teachers, and first exhibited in 1916, having her first solo show the following year. The early work includes many abstracts. She was experimenting with colour and line, influenced by her precocious reading of Kandinsky – she was one of the first readers of his classic Concerning the Spiritual in Art which was translated into English in 1914. And by the notion of synaesthesia – that music can be perceived as colour and vice versa.

She also made a number of drawings in charcoal, abstract swirls and flowing designs, which I found among the most compelling works in the show.

Room 2. Abstraction and the senses O’Keeffe lived in New York from the Great War till the Wall Street Crash (1929), experimenting with her own personal brand of abstraction and struggling to establish a name. The audio commentary emphasises from the start the struggle O’Keeffe had in a predominantly male art world. She hated being called a woman artist and rebelled against the criticisms and limitations of the male artists and critics of the day, especially those who deprecated watercolour as a soft, ‘woman’s’ medium. In fact she made lots of attractive, swirling, abstract watercolours.

Here in room 2 we meet an early crux of this issue of ‘gendered’ criticism, the painting she called Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Some critics at the time said it resembled a woman’s genitals, and used this ‘insight’ as a launch pad to discuss – and belittle – all her work in the same sexist terms, much to the artist’s anger and frustration. The audio commentary tells us that this ‘gendered’ interpretation was revived by a new wave of feminist artists and critics in the 1970s, who asserted these kinds of works were bold and innovative depictions of female sexuality.

To be honest, if the commentary hadn’t drummed home this line of interpretation, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind. But once it had been raised, and repeated a number of times, I found it harder to ‘forget’ that she was a woman artist. Particularly as O’Keeffe herself was quoted on the wall labels or on the audio commentary repeating her criticism of the male artists and critics of her time as bombastic, blinkered, limited and ignorant of ‘the real America’.

Room 3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their circle In New York O’Keeffe fell passionately in love with the pioneering art photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). He was 54 and married, so she became his mistress until he finally managed to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry her.

Stieglitz was a well-established presence on the New York art scene, apparently single-handedly making photography into a respected art form, and he also ran galleries which promoted a range of other artists. This room contains a large number of his striking photos. He did a series of studies of clouds, grouped under the title of Equivalents which I found very attractive.

There are contemporary books by artists and writers he knew, manifestos and magazine articles, all conveying the artistic activity of the period. During this period Stieglitz also did a series of black and white studies of his lover, O’Keeffe, in all sorts of poses, close-ups of hands, of her face, wearing different clothes and costumes, with masks and props, as well as a series of striking nude studies. According to the commentary these are ‘the most important nudes in US art history’.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles ©The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Stieglitz included the nudes in an exhibition of his photos in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly, for many critics and viewers O’Keeffe’s name became associated with these candid and striking photos of her naked body. There was a gap of a few years before she had the next exhibition of her paintings, whereupon the first thing critics and viewers associated her with was the nudes. A naked woman making paintings which look like vaginas – it is sad but true that O’Keeffe spent decades trying to throw off the limitations and gendered stereotypes which were created in these early years.

Room 4. New York cityscapes The 1920s were the Jazz Era and skyscrapers were going up all over New York, which became a byword for urban energy and excitement. O’Keeffe made lots of paintings trying to capture the energy and excitement of the city in bold vibrant colours. There are roughly two types of painting in this room. Much the more attractive are the stark blue and black night scenes:

Less interesting are the daytime scenes of the city, seen as a rather grey, smoky conurbation. These reminded me of the dreary the urban landscapes of L.S. Lowry who, as it happens, was born the same year as O’Keeffe.

Again the paintings are set against contemporary b&w photos of the city by Stieglitz and other art photographers. The best of her night pictures are more vivid than any of the photos.

Room 5. Lake George The Stieglitz family had a summer home near Lake George in upstate New York and room is devoted to paintings of the lake and the landscape and the house.

By this, the fifth room, I was beginning to get a feel for the variety of subject matter in O’Keeffe’s work, and for her tendency to make the subjects simpler and more colourful. But this room for the first time included works which seemed bland and under-powered. Looking back I realised the early abstracts are sort of nice but nowhere near as creative and fanciful as contemporary works in Europe by the likes of Kandinsky or Klee. The New York cityscapes are colourful, but lack the Modernist angularity of the European tradition. And now some of these lakeside paintings looked positively amateurish.

Room 6. Flowers and still lifes Room six is devoted to examples of her most famous subject, flowers. The commentary tells us that Jimson Weed (below) recently sold for $44 million, the highest price ever fetched by a ‘woman artist’ – before going on to tell us that the phrase ‘woman artist’ is one O’Keeffe herself would have angrily rejected. Why use it, then?

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

But you can see why images like this or Oriental Poppies are so popular: big, striking, colourful and completely undemanding.

There is an obvious continuity of style between the gentle abstraction of Grey Lines, the simplified clouds in New York Street and the stylised leaves and washy blue background in Jimson. Simple design. Bold, though pastelly, colours.

However, although there are 20 or so canvases of flowers in this room, not many of them are as big or as striking as the two mentioned above. If you google “O’Keeffe flowers” you get hundreds of images – big, bright, wonderful pictures which could fill lots of rooms.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that the exhibition, though comprehensive in scope, maybe doesn’t include O’Keeffe’s best work.

Room 7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde Like many other artists, O’Keeffe discovered the American South-West in the 1930s. This room features her paintings of the bleak, arid, desert landscape, with its stark adobe churches and primitive settlements.

There is a bright simplicity to all these paintings, but I was unimpressed by the lack of energy or excitement in them, with their unadventurous composition and flat placid colouring.

The room features the work of contemporary photographers of the same landscape and subjects taken by her friends Paul Strand and Anselm Adams, which I found much more forceful, more angled, more highlighted and distinct and interesting.

Room 8. From the faraway, nearby: the skull paintings In the desert she found skeletons picked white and clean. She took to juxtaposing accurate depictions of the skulls of deer and other animals against her stylised landscapes. There’s a great quote, repeated in the commentary and on the wall, in which she belittles all the men she knew in New York who were talking about the ‘Great American’ this, that or the other, when none of them had even been across the Hudson River – whereas O’Keeffe saw herself as a pioneer, out in the desert, in touch with the ‘real’ America, discovering ‘the Great American things’.

All the skull paintings in this room are good, in an often surreal way (though she and the commentary deny she was ever a surrealist). But – I don’t really know why – none of them grabbed me or arrested my attention, made me think Wow!

Room 9. Ghost ranch The ‘ghost ranch’ was a real place, a ‘dude’ ranch where Easterners came out West to play at being cowboys. O’Keeffe came across it in 1934 and was entranced by the powerful views from it. She rented a house on the property from 1937, and bought it in 1940. This room contains paintings of the surrounding landscape.

Maybe it’s me but I began to find all these semi-abstract, simplified landscapes to be increasingly samey. The commentary describes her increasing interest in ‘seriality’, by which they mean doing paintings of the same subject over and over again. When does repetition topple over into repetitiveness?

Room 10. The black place and the white place The commentary tries hard to convey to the listener the mystique O’Keeffe clearly felt for the hills and ranches and locations she painted. There was the ‘white place’, a stretch of limestone cliffs along the Chama River, and the ‘black place’, apparently a fold of black rock in some hills. But there’s not much to latch on to. The blandness of the names tells you something.

I also became aware of the lack of any people in the paintings, and the absence of any cultural reference. There’s nothing about the myths or legends of the local peoples (had they all been killed off by the time O’Keeffe settled there?) or pioneer tales of the white people who settled here.

In Hollywood this was the era of gripping films noirs, of big cities, wise guys, classy dames, noisy shoot outs. Of wide-finned automobiles and Coca Cola bottles. None of this whatsoever, nothing of contemporary American life, is in these paintings – which retail a landscape emptied and depopulated, bereft of any forms of organic life, no birds, no animals, no humans – nothing alive.

Instead – lots of series of more or less the same views.

Room 11. The series: Abiquiú patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees She worked more and more on ‘series’ of the same subject. In this room are examples from three series: the patio of a house, the blue desert sky seen through the hole in the pelvis bone of dead animals, and numerous versions of the local cottonwood trees.

The pelvis bones have a certain stark simplicity which quickly grows a little boring. I disliked the wishy-washy leaves and foliage of the trees series.

Room 12. The South-West According to the commentary, O’Keeffe’s ‘practice’ in the American Southwest involved ‘penetrating what it meant to find the essence of America’. Well, that essence seems to consist of desert landscapes emptied of all people. You could say it represents a wholesale and complete turning-her-back on the actual nature of American society in the 1930s (Great Depression), 1940s (Second World War), and 1950s (Cold War and atomic threat).

Instead, this room displays the series of paintings she made of ‘kachinas’, figurines of spirit beings which the local Indians carved in wood. But nothing anywhere of the actual Indians.

Room 13. Late abstractions and skyscapes By the 1950s O’Keeffe was flying to and fro across the skies, as were increasingly wealthy Americans generally. On one flight, looking down on the great carpet of clouds below, it seemed to her almost as if she could open the plane door and step out onto a soft woolly carpet. As my son put it, ‘that must be one of the most unoriginal observations ever made’. She also noticed that, seen from a plane, landscapes often seem like abstract patterns. Not unlike her paintings. And so this room of late abstracts collects paintings based on these rather under-powered ‘insights’.

Thoughts

After initial interest I became steadily more underwhelmed by this big exhibition and, by the last few rooms, I was impatient for it to end. In the whole show I liked the Oriental Poppies and the Paul Strand and Anselm Adams’s b&w photographs of the South-West, and found almost everything else very ‘meh’.

Searching Google Images for many of the links above, I’ve been struck by how many of the paintings which show up in the search results are much more bright and interesting than anything in the show, especially the flower paintings. It’s just possible that, although the show is a very thorough overview of her entire career, many of the best paintings are in private hands or for one reason or another, simply not available.

That might explain why, although she may well be ‘a foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’, not many of the individual works here really justified that large a claim.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: