A Great Coming-of-Age Story Print
Art - Reviews
Written by Steve Banks   
Tuesday, 13 December 2005 18:00
The first artwork that could truly be described as “American” grew up in a highly charged age of efficiency, modernization, innovation, and invention. America was a newly emerging world power with a fresh understanding of and appreciation for industry, along with the possibilities of technology, wealth, and a new aesthetic toward art.

The Great American Thing, the Figge Art Museum’s first major exhibit, gives us a glimpse into the transmogrification of America from a rural province that relied heavily on European cultural cues to a confident, urbanized cultural powerhouse shaping its own destiny.

Unlike Europe, which was anchored by its long history of traditions and conventions, America was an awkward adolescent eager to find its own identity and its own values. The different cultural demographics of the American population contributed to a new and highly energized visual language. Much like the English language, which has some of its roots in German but has certainly evolved into something different and distinct, American art grew from several cultures but became a new entity as well. The results are works that are motivated by an excitement and fascination with new possibilities in a world of skyscrapers, smokestacks, motion, repetition, and mass production while simultaneously “borrowing” elements from several older cultures.

The Great American Thing is based on the book with the same name by Wanda Corn and is curated by Corn and Patricia McDonnell. It is an exceptional collection of stunning visual art (including at least two must-see pieces), archive films, ample text for deeper understanding, and experimental recordings and video, along with a look at fashion and commerce. As a bonus, there are scattered throughout the exhibit photographs of some of the biggest names in early 20th Century art. This is a rare opportunity to see images of Francis Picabia, Louis Lozowick, Bernice Abbott, Stuart Davis, Man Ray, Marcel DuChamp (when he is not dressed up as his female alter ego Rrose Selavy), Romare Beardon, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Georgia O’Keeffe, just to name a few.

There was a newness and excitement about the sounds of industry and commerce at the turn of the last century. The Great American Thing offers us a glimpse of this youthful exuberance with the film entitled Manhatta (1921) by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, which demonstrates this passionate fascination with the aesthetics of the machine age. It is a roughly 10-minute-long pulsing and grainy film (an infant medium in its own right) that documents the sights of New York City. The filmmakers affectionately see the dawn of a new and hopeful age for man in a landscape with bold architecture that challenges the sky, trains that belch smoke, streets that are swarming with vehicles and pedestrians, and a harbor buzzing with tug boats and ocean liners. If America truly has a love affair with its automobiles, then this film shows us out on our first date.

End of Parade Coatesville, Pa., by Charles Demuth, is a small and energetic tempera-and-pencil-on-paper-board piece that shows a constructed skyline complete with billowing smokestacks piercing the sky. The groupings of buildings and smokestacks establish a bouncy dialogue between them, and the smoke has a curvaceous quality that speaks to the affection that Demuth has toward his subject; smoke was seen as progress, not as pollution. You can see in this piece that all-American amalgamation of influences such as traditional three-point perspective, a hint of cubist spacial sensibilities, and the futurists’ fascination with machine, motion, and industry transformed into something different from just a blend of its components.

Vistas used to be the nearly exclusive domain of the wealthy. Now the average man could enjoy dynamic views from his home. Several photographs of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) demonstrate this enthusiasm for the new sights of urban living. In New York from the Shelton (1935), Stieglitz captures the view from his apartment building, showcasing a new visual banquet for the eyes: the skyscraper.

Many artists explored this evolving landscape. Bernice Abbott’s black-and-white photograph Murray Hill Hotel: Spiral, 112 Park Avenue, Manhattan explores visual harmonies and balances seen throughout the city between these new architectural elements, in this case the disc-shaped wrought-iron balconies of a building in the foreground with the pale and stark geometric planes of another building in the distance.

John Marin (1870-1953) takes a softer and more romanticized approach to the dialogues he found throughout the new cityscape in his thickly painted Mid-Manhattan, No. 1. Unlike the crisp, matter-of-fact presentation of Abbott’s skyline, Marin has created the sense of architecture and movement with strokes and hatches of whites and duns, oranges and reds, and patches of cobalt.

A different take on the urban experience is the tempera-on-board work entitled Broadway Melody (1945) by Mark Tobey (1890-1976). It is a dense and almost frantic portrayal of the movements and energy found in the city, composed of glyphs, strokes, squiggles, and loose patches of color. The undulating reds, pinks, blues, and browns make the surface sing. Broadway Melody seems to be a harbinger for the Abstract Expressionism movement of the late 1940s and ’50s.

One of the two must-see works in the exhibit is the knockout work Saturday Night by Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891-1981). Motley has re-created the warm and inviting feel of a swank nightclub complete with sharply dressed people clustered around tables that are dotted with colorful lamps, bottles, cigars, and glasses. This rosy oil on canvas is raucous with exuberance and vitality. The figures at the bar form a diagonal to reinforce your attention to the dancer in a red dress just left of center. The waiters cutting through the crowd echo the dancer with movements of their own. The tables seem to flow from the band in the upper-right corner. Motley’s keen use of pinks and joyous movements avoids any sense of being seedy or debaucherous, but instead conveys a mood of warmth at this speakeasy.

The other must-see piece is the iconic and powerful The Ascent of Ethiopia, by Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998). Here we find a Pharaoh-esque figure, in the lower-right corner, standing witness to the physical, spiritual, and cultural journey of a people from Africa to a new cityscape/world on a hill, and their re-emergence as a cultural force in visual art, literature, drama, blues, and jazz (and eventually rock-and-roll and beyond). The action on the left side of the piece starts with a shaft of heavenly light beaming down from a star to illuminate a dark figure in supplication at the base of the hill, which arcs over the head of the Pharaoh. Several figures are climbing the hill toward a compressed city/culture-scape that is backlit by several concentric circles of a moon-like form. The sparing and dynamic use of yellows and whites to punctuate the activity stand in satisfying contrast to the nocturnal passages of blues, violets, and greens.

In Early Morning Work by William Henry Johnson (1901-1970), we see three figures outside their small wooden shack with a blue roof and the sides formed with strokes of mauve and purple. Their large hands hold buckets as they, along with their cantankerous animals, prepare for another long day of work in a string of hard days. Johnson painted simply with bright unmodeled colors to emulate the honesty and vitality of folk work that was so prevalent in the American South.

But The Great American Thing is not exclusively a visual experience. Tucked away on the fourth floor of the museum is a listening station where you should make some time to hear Ballet Mechanique by George Antheil (1900-1959). When it premiered in Paris in 1926, it was quite controversial, a frantic cacophony of xylophones, pianos, percussive instruments, and industrial sounds. Antheil’s work explored the sound possibilities of industrial objects and our relationship with them decades before Stomp or the Blue Man Group.

The Great American Thing runs until the end of December and is a thought-provoking, mind-expanding opportunity to re-charge your visual batteries, as well as an excellent chance to see the new museum if you have not yet done so.
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