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Backgrounder:

The Ebsworth Collection and American Modernism
(January 24, 2000)

"The greatest performance in America--as well as its most original creation--is surely the United States itself. Sometimes expressed as ugly or naive jingoism, sometimes as bitter satire, the abiding focus of the creative life of American artists in this century has been America, whether defined in opposition, supplying what is lost, affirming or amplifying what is there. American modern art is a space that inverts, investigates, questions this performance. Here is where the value of a single great collection returns--as one cast on a stage of the heterotopia of painting, which we can view as an audience and witness the ongoing drama."

Bruce Robertson,
from the exhibition catalogue Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection

"What you see is what you see."
Frank Stella, artist

The Ebsworth collection tells the story of the dramatic development of American modernist art beginning at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, at which the American public and many American artists had their first glimpse of the European avant-garde: the expressionists, the fauves, and the cubists. For the next thirty years artists in America played catch-up. Not until Jackson Pollock emerged in the late 1940s did American art become dominant in the world scene. The story ends in the late 1960s--the moment just before many critics would say that painting died.

The collection begins with two American artists shaped fully in the tradition of French painting and working in New York. William Glackens' painterly Cafe Lafayette (Portrait of Kay Laurell) (1914) has its roots in French impressionism. However, Andrew Dasburg's Landscape (1913), painted one year earlier, already shows influences from the Armory Show and specifically that of Cézanne. Joseph Stella's kaleidoscopic futurist works, including Tree of My Life (1919), go one step further, strongly reflecting the latest European trends, as the artist himself had lived in Paris.

It is with the group of artists associated with photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz that we find American artists beginning to work in new and individual directions. Among these, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe are represented in this exhibition. Although each of these artists was individual in his or her subject matter, they shared the belief that modern art meant abstraction. But the Stieglitz group's style of abstraction was more organic in form than the ideal, geometricized work coming out of Paris. Dove's muted Moon (1935) is a poetic work, an abstraction of nature and of its unseen forces. Much of O'Keeffe's work, both representational and abstract, was inspired by the organic forms of nature. Charles Sheeler was both a photographer and painter. He developed a type of abstraction that relates more with the ideal cubism of the French than with that of the Stieglitz group. In 1927, Sheeler was commissioned to photograph an automotive plant designed by Albert Kahn, a pioneer of modern factory design. Sheeler declared his subject "thrilling," and photographed the plant for the next six weeks. These photographs, in turn, became the basis for a stunning series of abstract paintings, which include Classic Landscape (1931).

In works like Chop Suey (1929), Edward Hopper continued the realist tradition in painting with direct, honest depictions of American life. Louis Guglielmi moved from the real to a form of surrealism, undoubtedly influenced by the European avant-garde and such exhibitions as the Museum of Modern Art's 1936 Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism show. Guglielmi's brilliant Mental Geography (1938) is a complex riff on New York's Brooklyn Bridge.

Suzy Frelinghuysen's husband collected works by modern European artists, such as Braque, Picasso, Miró, and Mondrian. In her own pieces, she, too, responded to the European lead by incorporating Picasso and Braque's cubism and collage techniques into works such as Composition (1943). Frelinghuysen used actual cardboard along with pieces of newspaper clippings and other found elements to add texture and richness to her spare cubist works.

At the same time, some American artists actively sought to go beyond a dialogue with Europe. In 1944 Jackson Pollock had said, "I accept the fact that the important painting of the last hundred years was done in France." Six years later, Pollock himself had taken the lead on the world stage, having reached a point of total abstraction in his work. Pollock's energetic Composition with Red Strokes, one of his classic "poured" paintings, was created in 1950. That same year Pollock said," A reviewer...wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or end. He didn't mean it as a compliment. It was a fine compliment."

A Long Island neighbor of Pollock's, born in The Netherlands, Willem de Kooning never embraced abstraction to the same extent as Pollock, but in paintings like Woman as Landscape (1955) he incorporated Pollock's sense of energy, openness, and freedom. His subject, the woman, was still clearly present, but dramatically dematerialized. Jasper Johns' painting Gray Rectangles (1957), original in its own right, recalls earlier American artists, like Dove and O'Keeffe, who sometimes kept to muted palettes, but he also absorbed Pollock and the idea that a painting can be its own subject. In Gray Rectangles, Johns' gray is not the color of Dove's delicate mist or of O'Keeffe's silvery light. It is the dull gray of flannel. Only on closer inspection is it apparent that the three panels had been painted the bright primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. An icing of neutral gray encaustic encases Johns' surface. In his work, the subject is no longer nature or abstraction, but ideas about withholding and manipulation. Johns consciously tried to empty his paintings of meaning, saying, "if the painting is an object, then the object can be a painting."

The pop artists of the 1960s made an insolent about-face by reintroducing the subject to painting, only now, they stipulated, the subject matter was completely irrelevant. Wayne Thiebaud's Bakery Counter (1962) strives to be nothing more than depictions of bakery goods: no abstraction, no organic life forces, no metaphors. Andy Warhol, in works like Campbell's Soup with Can Opener (1962), goes one step further, by choosing a subject both impersonal and banal. As the artist Frank Stella put it, "What you see is what you see."

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