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Country Life

TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL

Clean Precisionist lines in Bucks County Barn , 1940, by Charles Sheeler.
Painting No. 50 , 1914–15, from the series ‘Amerika’ by Marsden Hartley

IN 1914, the American painter Marsden Hartley set to work on a 4ft by 4ft canvas, divided vertically by an arrow. Above this was a teepee and above this again, the wings of a totem pole. All these were highly stylised. Looked at in a certain way, the teepee, wings and arrow were not these things at all, but simply patterns, like the dots and chevrons of the rest of the picture. They were, in other words, abstract, or tending that way. Hartley did not want their symbolism lost, however. To make sure it wasn’t, he called the series, of which his new painting was part, ‘Amerika’.

Yes, that is Amerika rather than America, Painting No. 50 having been made not in Hartley’s native state of Maine, but in Berlin. He had moved there a year before and come under the influence of Wassily Kandinsky. Like Picasso and African masks, Kandinsky had discovered primitivism in the folk art of his own native Russia. By 1909, however, he had moved on from Chekhovian brides and barns and was working on abstract canvases with names such as Improvisation and Fugue. This makes Hartley’s Painting No. 50 an oddity; modern in what was, by 1914, an old-fashioned way. Its other peculiarity is suggested by the name Hartley gave to his series. Picasso may have been taken with African art, but he made no claim to being an African artist. Hartley, on the other hand, was using arrows and teepees to invent a modernity that was specifically American.

This project is at the heart of the Ashmolean’s intriguing new exhibition. In our day of US cultural rule, it’s hard to imagine a time when the country was young and provincial and its artists crossed the Atlantic in search of the modern. In the 1920s and 1930s—the period of the show—this also meant finding the Modern: as Modernism, in its various forms, was then at its height. Of the 40 or so artists included here, the majority had, like Hartley, gone to sit at the feet of masters: to London (George Ault), Italy (Charles Sheeler), Berlin (Hartley) and, above all, to Paris (E. E. Cummings, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper and so on). The story of ‘America’s Cool Modernism’, however, is not of the artists’ transatlantic voyaging, but of what they made of it when they got home.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s East River from the Shelton Hotel , 1928, blends Modern techniques and ideas with a very American subject
Which Way? , 1932, an etching by Martin Lewis, whose work was influenced by travel in Japan

Common sense suggests there can be no one answer to this and common sense, as often, is right. Hartley and the rest were as different from each other as any artists and had come under different international influences. They also lived in very different and disparate places—Hartley in Maine, Georgia O’Keeffe in Manhattan and New Mexico, Charles Demuth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. What the exhibition sets out to prove is that a singular way of seeing grew up, so that one was no longer European, but distinctively American.

Broadly, what it suggests is that the repatriated artists grafted European Modernism onto native stock—thus the teepees and arrows of Hartley’s Painting No. 50, and, in a very different form, the household objects of Sheeler’s Americana (1931). The uncanniness of this lovely painting comes from it being a hybrid—Modern in being flattened à la Cézanne, but apple-pie American in the things it depicts: the Shaker furniture and handicrafts of Sheeler’s country house. So, too, O’Keeffe’s East River from the Shelton Hotel (1928), which reduces the perspective (Modern) but whose subject is skyscrapers (American). For the curators of ‘America’s Cool Modernism’, however, what links these three very different paintings is less their hybridity than the lack of people in them.

Sheeler dubbed himself a Precisionist and with reason: the chill exactness of his work— Bucks County Barn (1940) is an example—verges on the photographic. Humanity would have been too untidy for it. So, too, for the work of Sheeler’s co-Precisionists, Ralston Crawford and Demuth. The only artist in the show who regularly paints people is its most famous, Hopper, and then only to emphasise their isolation. But is this exclusion of the human figure—the ‘cool’ of the exhibition’s title —the same for all its participants and is it uniquely American?

The answer to both questions is no. European Modernists had got there first—painters such as Robert and Sonia Delaunay and the madcap Marcel Duchamp, whose work shaped that of the Americans, had long dispensed with figure painting. The tendency was something the artistic tourists had taken home in their luggage. But this is to cavil: ‘America’s Cool Modernism’ is a fine show. We rarely get to see the art of inter-war America; Hopper and O’Keeffe apart, few of us have even heard of the people who made it. There are rare treasures in the Ashmolean this spring and they really shouldn’t be missed.

‘America’s Cool Modernism; O’Keeffe to Hopper’ is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until July 22 (01865 278000; www.ashmolean.org )

Next week ‘Humphry Repton: Art and Nature for the Duke of Bedford’ at Woburn Abbey

Estate of Charles Sheeler; Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago. 2017 Artists’ Rights Society (ARS) New York; Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago

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