Wednesday, June 20, 2007

no place like home

From this week's stack of dead tree pulp:
The title of the Johnson Museum's exhibit "Looking Homeward: A Century of American Art" might be misleading. While strong as a collection of art, the show is scattershot as history. Its representation of the early 20th century scene is impressive but the narrative becomes progressively diluted.

Anchoring this story (such as it is) is a selection of one or more pieces by each of "The Eight": Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan (the bulk of this work is on loan from Cornell alumnus Mina Reur Weiner and her husband Stephen). In February of 1908, these men were brought together in a show organized by Henri for NYC's Macbeth Gallery. Despite a wide range of approaches, the group is considered the nucleus of what was later dubbed the Ashcan School - so named for its focus on the sordid aspects of life in the modern city. Rough, sketchy brushstrokes were characteristic.

A pair of paintings by Henri are particularly striking. Patience (1915) is a portrait of a young boy with dark, shoulder-length hair, his skin yellow-ochre and blushing pink. He wears a dark shirt with a rounded collar and a chaotic pink swirl of a necktie. Amsterdam, Holland (1907) shares a similarly dynamic approach.

Not all of the group's work conforms to the Ashcan stereotype. A pair of pastoral landscapes by Lawson come out of late 19th century American Impressionism. These scenes seem fussy and overly genteel by comparison, part of what Henri was reacting against. (See Childe Hassam's ink-painting-like etching The Broad Curtain for a much stronger example from this tradition.) More compelling is work by Davies and Prendergast, which resembles efforts by the artists' European early-modernist contemporaries.

The influence of the Ashcan School - or at least an affinity with its socially conscious themes - is all over this show. Photographer Lewis Hine's Woman Washing Next to Stove (undated, probably early 20th century) documents extreme poverty while Reginald Marsh's gouache on paper Grand Tier (1939) gently satirizes well-to-do opera-goers.

Another strong current in prewar art was formalist modernism, which drew much of its inspiration from Europe. Artists in this tradition largely eschewed topical relevance, focusing instead on abstraction and personal style. Here, pieces as diverse as John Marin's frenzied watercolor Off Cape Split: Maine Coast (1933) and William Rice's quiet, Japanese-influenced floral color woodcut Callas (1925) fit into this stream. An untitled photogram (1922) by Man Ray, is an abstraction dominated by a Slinky-like coil. Jacob Lawrence's gouache The Typists (1966) blends both traditions, showing three African-American women at work in an angular office.

Milton Avery's The Brown Hat (1941) is a standout effort. Working (unusually) with gouache painted over screenprint, Avery shows a tan-skinned girl seated on a brownish-red cushion. We see her from her left side; her head is pointed towards her lap, where she holds a sheet of paper in her left hand. She wears a white dress with red and blue decorations on the sleeves and collar, as well as a blob-like hat (black as well as brown). She appears to be drifting off to sleep. Characteristic of Avery, the areas of color and texture are flat, with minimal shading. Also characteristic is the figure's implausible anatomy - her right forearm, for example, seems to come out of nowhere. The piece is simple, unpretentious and funny.

A pair of untitled paintings by Willem de Kooning (1947) and Richard Lindner (1967) take cubism in different directions. De Kooning's piece (painted during the heroic early days of Abstract Expressionism) depicts a female nude with a wild flurry of overlapping pencil lines, some partially "erased" with white oil paint. Representing a different cultural moment, Lindner's watercolor shows a couple: a psychedelic dandy with what looks like a (female) prostitute, both with comically shrunken heads and sprouting incongruous appendages such as wings and mechanical arms.

Immogen Cunningham's photograph is intriguing. Eiko's Hands (1971), shows the arms and lower torso of a woman - wearing a dark long-sleeved blouse with puffy sleeves - reflected as a mysterious dark silhouette in a round metal tub full of water.

The selection of work from the past couple decades is comparatively hodgepodge. One highlight is Wayne Thiebaud's color intaglio print Hill River (2002), an aerial view of water and farmland turned into an angular abstraction. Others include James Siena's tiny, intricate wood-engraved Recursive Combs - Vertical (2004) and Richard Misrach's large, panoramic photo 2.21.98 4:46 pm (View from my front porch). The latter is a spectacular view of the Golden Gate bridge.

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