SYRACUSE – How do you tell a story like modern art in America?
Museums’ approaches to this question have been varied and variously successful. There are sprawling, seemingly exhaustive surveys with 2-ton catalogs that slog slowly through decades of creativity. There are quirky quick hits meant to explore a single facet of an irreducible moment. And then there is “American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell,” a show that attempts to pack the drama and beauty of 50 years of modern art into just 57 paintings and sculptures.
The word “foolhardy” comes to mind.
The show, which remains on view through May 12 at Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art, was assembled almost entirely from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum by Karen Sherry and Margaret Stenz. It’s in the midst of an eight-city tour of small and midsize museums across the southern and eastern United States.
“American Moderns,” for all the glimmering individual gems it contains, isn’t likely to shock the uninitiated visitor into a new, world-shaking appreciation of that tumultuous half-century or its vast and variegated artistic output. But it contains more than enough surprises and framed bits of brilliance to whet museum-goers’ appetites and stoke their curiosities about why the art of mid-20th century America should rank among the country’s defining achievements.
The show is itself like a rudimentary cubist portrait of an era, fractured and fragmentary but deeply intriguing if you know how and where to look. It’s been divided into six separate categories, each one designed to explore some essential feature of the aging century. This approach, though perhaps necessary for the sake of cohesion and to give visitors a rope by which to pull themselves through the show, runs the risk of portraying art as a mere response to social circumstances rather than the deeply individual act of creativity it often is.
Even so, each of the curators’ categories contains some stunners.
The show begins with “Cubist Experiments,” which delves into the epochal style created by Picasso and Braque that spread with viral efficiency across the international art world beginning in the teens. Americans were quick to replicate the style. The show contains a riotous, Kandinsky-esque canvas from 1917 by Stanton McDonald Wright called “Synchrony No. 3,” with colors so bright you can almost hear them. Another piece, Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Memories of My California Childhood,” from 1921, is a dark and fractured cubist scene of a picnic, like a rusted-over recollection or half-remembered dream. There’s also a lively transitional piece by Max Weber (well-represented in this show) from 1917.
These cubist fancies (for few of them could be called masterpieces) spill over into the “Still Life Revisited” room, which contains two of the most intriguing pictures in the show. The first is Marsden Hartley’s 1942 oil “White Cod,” which on first inspection seems like nothing more than a painting of two dead fish but upon reading the wall text, is revealed to be a heartbreaking memento mori of two of Hartley’s friends who drowned off Nova Scotia in 1936. It’s a horrifying, engrossing painting, and its presentation here is as good an argument for the importance of smart and pointed wall text as any I’ve seen.
The still life section also includes a fascinating small painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, the 1939 oil “Fishhook from Hawaii No. 1,” in which the artist turned a loop of fishing wire into a sort of strange-looking glass that refracts the turquoise sea beyond in three distinct ways. It’s a surreal and disorienting piece, much more thought-provoking than the decorative works by O’Keeffe elsewhere in the show, and I had to double back to make sure I saw it right the first time.
Later, it’s on to “Nature Essentialized,” which contains a large, strange painting of a reimagined globe by Augustus Vincent Tack (“Canyon,” from 1931) and a fine piece by Arthur G. Dove, the 1946 painting “Flat Surfaces,” which nonetheless will probably escape first-time viewers because it provides no context for Dove’s unique gifts. For me, the standout is Milton Avery’s “Artist’s Daughter by the Sea,” a 1943 canvas in which a girl, painted in the style of Matisse, almost blends into the seascape behind her, symbolizing a fusion of man and nature.
“Modern Structures,” shorthand for artists’ growing fascination with the rapidly growing urban landscape, has a lovely, wall-mounted bronze sculpture by Herzel Emanuel from 1937 (and finally cast in 1990) called “View of Lower Manhattan” that shows a dizzying, cubist vision of fractured steel and wood. “The Emerald Tower,” a nightmarish neon cityscape of candy-colored towers looming over Brooklyn Heights by Isabel Lydia Whitney from 1927-28, also captures the eye and seems ahead of its time.
“Americana,” the next section, is the most problematic of all. It was almost surely an excuse to shoe-horn in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1944 piece “The Tattoo Artist,” which appeared on a Saturday Evening Post cover that year. It’s a deft and very funny illustration, but, like the other pieces in this section, too tenuously linked to what came before it to qualify as a useful plot point in the long narrative this show is trying to weave.
The show closes with “Engaging Characters,” which despite its seemingly random title, contains a trio of lovely works by the painter Guy Pène du Bois, a sort of social documentary painter who captured scenes in cafés and on streets. My favorite of these was “The Confidence Man,” a 1919 oil which depicts a dark, menacing transaction between a goateed businessman and a woman – his wife? a prostitute? – in a dimly lit space rendered in ruddy browns and blacks.
The Everson, not content to let this pint-sized exhibition hang by its lonesome, put together a room of work from its own collection drawn from the same period the show covers. It is a revelation in itself, with 12 works by the likes of Reginald Marsh (his very funny 1932 piece “Jack Curley’s Dance Marathon” is a highlight), Milton Avery and Katherine Dreier. Of particular interest is Eldzier Cortor’s “Southern Souvenir No. IV,” a wild and disorienting picture from 1948 that gets at the dark heart of the African-American experience in Urban America. The show ends in a fashion any Buffalalonian could appreciate, with “Six O’Clock,” Charles Burchfield’s somnolent wintertime scene from 1936 of dinner being served in the glowing front room of a city house.
On a basic level, “American Moderns” doesn’t do its job as well as it might have even with the available material. But frankly, given the turbulent decades the exhibition covers, the potential for anyone to go into this exhibition clueless and exit it an expert is extremely unlikely. It’s still well worth the 150-minute trip, though, for the many small pearls of beauty and wonder it contains.
More exhibits Down the road
The Everson Museum (401 Harrison St., Syracuse; free admission with $5 suggested donation) has a host of intriguing shows planned.• “An American Look: Fashion, Decorative Arts and Gustav Stickley,” which focuses on the fashions of 1910-14 as well as furniture and decorative objects by Stickley and others, runs from June 15 to Sept. 22.
• “Jordan Eagles: Red Giant,” a solo exhibition for the popular artist who uses blood as his primary medium, runs from Sept. 21 to Jan. 5, 2014.
• “The Art of Video Games,” a look at the evolution of the form over the past 40 years, runs from Oct. 26 to Jan. 19, 2014.
• “Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums,” an exhibition of works that rarely travel now getting excellent reviews in the United Kingdom, runs April 17 to July 13, 2014.
• “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond,” a traveling show organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, runs from Oct. 18, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015.