America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean in Oxford showcases the group of artists who between 1915 and 1945 produced a distinctively American art that presented itself as the imagery of ‘the new American order’ in which machines were already replacing human beings as the protagonists of change. The use of the word ‘cool’ in the show’s title can be misleading because its coolness is not a relaxed one but a decision to detach and disconnect as a response to the new world order. Thus, these imagery evokes the concealed pessimism of a civilisation that through show business presented itself as entertaining but which, actually, believed in entropy and decay. In other words, this is a historicist show that might come across as too barren and, even, boring for the uninformed viewers due to the fact that these artists thematise the bored of the new life through reduced forms, visual clarity and a rejection of the human figure, the narrative, the familiar and that that is spiritually fulfilling. Theirs was an art of erasure and absence that unfolds along three rooms. The first one dedicated to abstraction, the second one to the industrial landscape of the new American city and the third one to their depiction of rural barns. In other words, the curatorial script takes the viewer on a jorney from inside the art system and the need to justify everything as modernist High art, then it passes to the depiction of the modern city and, finally, the way they rejected the city only to bring their sense of alienation to the countryside.
The first room includes Marsden Hartley’s Painting 50, E.E.Cummings’ Sound (1919) and its theory of colour as an analogy of music, Patrick Henry Bruce’s Peinture (1917-18) and its multiple viewpoints (it might be born in mind that he got frustrated with his own body of work and destroyed everything), Morton Shamberg’s Untitled (1916), John Covert’s Resurrection (1916) in which codes and verbal puns are mixed with the organic and the abstract, Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Black Abstraction’ which is a symbolist visual representation of her experience of anesthetics, Arthur Dove’s Penetration 1924 and Helen Torr’s Crimson and Green Leaves (1927). A series of abstract photographs by Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen reinforce the view of this art as, as put by Dudley Poore, not abstractions but extractions where nature was emptying out and simplified. This distrust of non-essentials will be the main trait of this group. In 1925, it was also Poore who said of Charles Sheeler: ‘His art is a cool, cerebral art, all steely perfection, crystalline impersonality and purity of style. All is sure, conscious and calculated’. Geometry, rigidity and purity of forms is what this room is all about.
The second room is dedicated to ‘The Emptiness of Precision’ which means that showcases American Precisionism which was a style of painting inspired by cool urban design where extreme order hides chaos. These are the works of a neurotic culture that does not know how to accommodate its own humanity into the civilisation that has been building. Works such as Oscar Bluemner’s Little Falls (1917), Joseph Stella’s ‘Telegraphs Poles with Buildings’ (1917), Niles Spencer’s Waterfront Mill (1940) and the astonishing Charles Sheeler’s Water (1945) which depicts no water at all show how nature has been replaced by a mechanical idea of humanity. Also from Sheeler, there is his Mac Dougall Alley (1924) with its clear, sharp and cold beauty, its clean geometry and claustrophobic absence of people. Stuart Davis’ Odol (1924) is a gem in the show that links the Precisionists with the world of advertising and later on, with Pop Art.
Other works included in that room are Charles Demuth’s very Cubistic ‘Welcome to Our City’ (1921) and Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series which problematises the great black migration from the South in terms of social improvement uncritically. There are also images by Georgia O’Keefe painted from the skyscraper’s flat where she used to live with her husband, Edward Steichen. From that viewpoint people look like ants ready to be smashed by some sort superior being.
The third room is, however, where America’s true melancholy comes to the fore. These are the paintings when the Precisionists decided to abandon the city as a response to the cynical scepticism that fuelled their previous work. What I found surprising and speaks volumes of American culture is how clean and detached their paintings remain. They live the city but cannot stop speaking its language. It is as if there is no way out for them. Let’s take for example Ralston Crawford’s ‘Smith Silo’ with its simplified forms, lack of ornament and utter functionalism. His is a solidification of pictorial space into geometric form as a symptom of a pessimism that has been best captured by Edward Hopper with whom the Prescisionist brushwork loosens up and becomes emotional although still restrained and disciplined. In Hopper we can see a glimpse of optimism as depression turns into melancholy. J A T