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Metro Pulse Shaking Down the 20th Century

Forty-three world-class paintings and sculptures are on display in "Masterworks of American Art."

By Heather Joyner

MARCH 2, 1998:  Seeing Masterworks of American Art, on loan from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute of Utica, New York, I could imagine what a pierced, dyed, and branded student might think...that the exhibit opening this Friday is old hat. After messing with Charles Long's pink playdough installation at the Whitney Biennial this past May, I can understand that perspective. Given today's standards, the 43 paintings and sculptures by such luminaries as Edward Hopper, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and David Smith are traditional—if not tame. There are no crayon marks on the walls, videos, or heaps of unidentifiable detritus. Everything is framed or otherwise contained; some of it purse-size and priceless (no wonder a museum guard eyed me as I took notes). But the brilliance and significance of the art on display is undeniable. Besides, it's a kick to walk in off the streets of Knoxville into a show that could be in Munich, Paris, or Tokyo. Our city may have far to go, but it's come a long way.

Spanning a period of only 65 years, from William Glackens' "Under the Trees, Luxembourg Gardens" (1906) to Malcolm Morley's "Kodak Castle" (1971), the collection is remarkably varied. Regarding coherence, KMA assistant curator Nandini Makrandi says, "One common thread is that [the artists] were all experimenting with something new, pushing the field. There are a lot of themes in the show. It picks up where the American Grandeur show left off [KMA, '96]."

Interestingly enough, the exhibition is part of an even larger collection begun in the 1860s by James Watson Williams and his wife Helen Elizabeth, née Munson. Art aficionados that they were, they raised two daughters who carried on the crusade to acquire masterworks. According to Paul Schweizer (director) and John Sawyer (curator, 20th Century Art) of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, when the sisters married entrepreneurial half-brothers interested in collecting, the childless couples found themselves in the delightful predicament of having to figure out what to do with too much money. Thus, in 1919, the Institute was established, with older works augmented by a surge of purchases following World War II. Harris Prior, the Institute's director beginning in the late '40s, chose gutsy and insightful collector Edward Root as an acquisitions consultant, and together they made lists of artists whose works would complement existing pieces and Root's own collection (which was left to the Institute upon his death in 1956). Unfortunately, some of the art Prior and Root amassed—by visionaries such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Romare Bearden—is not on view at the KMA. What is present, however, constitutes a virtual compendium of evolving attitudes and styles in modern American art.

The earliest works are by artists involved with a group known as "The Eight," and later, "The Ashcan School." Among them, painters Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan aspired toward art that would be socially significant and distinctly American. Although predecessors like Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins were pioneers-of-sorts in this regard, the influence of the European Academy could be felt well into this century. Ironically, the Europe romanticized by American artists, arguably up until the emergence of Jackson Pollock, no longer existed. A formerly less bordeaux-and-béchamel-bellied Robert Hughes, wearing startlingly wide ties, prances around in The Shock of the New (a '70s BBC series on contemporary art) and remarks, "In 1914, when the first World War began, the world into which modern art was born had begun to vanish. The joyful sense of possibility that was born of the machine was now cut down by other machines...the idea that war was something between a joust and a cricket match had been wrecked by inventions which industrialized death as they had industrialized life."

In his book accompanying the more recent TV series American Visions, Hughes notes that Ashcan School exhibitors in the now-famous 1913 Armory Show (or, more precisely, the International Exhibition of Modern Art held at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan) seemed naïve compared with their counterparts from the other side of the Atlantic. He writes, "For American artists...the Armory Show did little. In fact, it was more a disaster than a triumph. They were eclipsed by the School of Paris [artists like Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, and Duchamp], left looking more provincial than ever...nor did they reap much from the whirlwind of publicity." Yet Robert Henri was much-admired here, especially as a teacher. A distant cousin of Mary Cassatt (the French Huguenot family name of Cazat was changed to Henri after Robert's father murdered a man and fled Nebraska), Henri was, according to Hughes, "...a magnet for younger artists, most of whom worked as illustrators for the Philadelphia press...they drank together, had long poker sessions, bellowed poetry at one another, and argued late into the night." The paintings of Henri and his cohorts exhibited at the KMA, running the gamut from lush Renoiresque landscape and gritty urban labor and decay to more classical portraiture, suggest that the boys probably debated art, as well. Naïve or not, their efforts to affect social awareness through art were noble, if not measurably effective. Says author and former UT professor of Art History Dale Cleaver, "There is a warmth and a kind of compassion when John Sloan paints a back-alley with wash hanging out...he was interested in showing an aspect of society that had not been seen in art."

The whole question of how avant garde the artists presented were in their heyday now seems a moot point. The famed New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer has stated that avant garde art "prepares the educated segment of a society to question the values that have been handed down...its role is to create a model of dissent." Kramer has also recognized that the avant garde, because it is always changing, has a complicated connection with the dominant culture and its values. "The initial collision, the initial challenge, always within a single generation was resolved into an embrace...[it's a mistake] to hold on to the notion of the avant garde as permanent cultural guerrillas making their forays into middle-class wealth—they actually were more like a family in which there were conflicts of generations—and, in the end (as often happens in families) when the wills were read, the avant garde turned out to be the beneficiary after all."

If approached chronologically, art by Man Ray, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, and Precisionist painters like Charles Demuth falls between The Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism. Dadaist Ray, of a movement that was neither Cubism, Surrealism, or Futurism but instead "nonsense"-oriented—a rejection of all that was serious and pretentious about art—is represented by a single uncharacteristic canvas titled "Hills" (oil on canvas, 1914). Barren, awkward trees in the painting's foreground break up the image like cracks in glass, reminding us of the work's two-dimensionality. Ray's landscape exudes hilliness more than it features real-looking hills, with sensuous, breast-like mounds of Mother Earth. Dada's childlike "innocence" is herein expressed, but with a hint of adult consternation and its sometimes confusing symbolism.

Marsden Hartley's "Summer, Sea Window No.1" (oil on cardboard, 1939-'40) is similarly folksy, with a poetic contradiction between the illusion of real space and perspective that is literally thrown out the window depicted. Considered by many to be the first great American Modernist, Maine-bred Hartley longed for Emersonian transcendence, and the conflict between interior and exterior worlds found in his painting is telling. The domestic scene of a pitcher and pink book on a table is particularly feminine juxtaposed with a grungy, chunky dock beyond. The ship sailing by and away perhaps speaks of freedom from either extreme, a possibility given Hartley's then-unacceptable homosexuality.

Like the Man Ray piece, albeit much larger, Edward Hopper's "The Camel's Hump" (oil on canvas, 1931) is an intriguing surprise. Entirely devoid of urban elements, it possesses an impossibly green, rolling lushness for the viewer to loll in. Reginald Marsh's "Lower Manhattan" (egg tempera on linen on Masonite, 1930) is more what you'd expect from Hopper, although there's a friendliness to the city scene with its human-scale tugboat plowing into water, puffing soot into blue sky.

Milton Avery's "Poetry Reading" (oil on canvas, 1957), various sculptures, and the Abstract Expressionist work (not including an early, muddy-looking Clyfford Still) are pure pleasure to behold. As far as classifying Avery is concerned, Dale Cleaver agrees that Avery is, for all intents and purposes, a color field painter "...except that he of course has subject matter, and the color field painters don't, generally—these movements have real fuzzy edges, and different critics, different art historians will argue about them. There's no point in trying to find exact answers because there aren't any." No matter what you call it, Avery's canvas, with its buttery mustard and putty grey tones and sinuous figures, is a gem. It never ceases to amaze me how much of a story Avery can tell with simple shapes and a minimum of gesture. The image of two people on a sofa, one turned inward and listening to the other, is remarkably intimate. Yet we somehow take part.

Arshile Gorky's "Making the Calendar" (oil on canvas, 1947), placed as it is near Helen Frankenthaler's color sinking into raw canvas, with calligraphic exuberance, could be seen as a precursor to Frankenthaler's "stain painting." Pencil lines and canvas peeking through are a visceral salute to process and balance the complexity of playful "structures" that resemble invented diagrams for subconscious thoughts, aspirations, and desires. Here, too, is Gorky's signature "toothy mouth" with its maniacal seam of lips and dripping paint defining teeth. Simultaneously humble and vicious, it reflects Gorky's talent for creating a universe both dreamlike and precise.

Jackson Pollock's "No.34" (enamel on paper mounted on Masonite, 1949) and Robert Motherwell's "The Tomb of Captain Ahab" (oil on canvasboard, 1953) are incredibly small...more like ideas for paintings than paintings themselves. But whereas the Pollock feels crammed into its frame and cropped, the Motherwell sparkles with paint-come-alive, white carving out seemingly dominant black. More elemental than his comparable yet monumental "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" series, "The Tomb of Captain Ahab" reminds me of Motherwell's statement that "the real object is not the world, but the canvas itself." He also remarked, "I always loved that title of Max Ernst's on one of his pictures: 'The Blind Swimmer.' I think, in a way, [we've] all worked as blind swimmers...as quite good swimmers, but quite blind."

Last but not least among paintings too numerous to describe are six sculptures, with David Smith's "The Letter" (welded steel, 1950) the pièce de résistance. Descended from a blacksmith, Smith did more with iron than even Picasso, and his work fuses concepts from a range of movements. Says Cleaver, "'The Letter' is FUN. I used to spend a lot of time in class on that one. Unlike his other things, though, 'The Letter' is not nonobjective...you can see Ys and Os and Hs...you can see Ohio, as I recall." Be that as it may, "The Letter" is more like hieroglyphics casting a pictographical shadow evoking the ancient past. On the other hand, it feels like the skeleton of an appliance discarded from the modern world. It leads us into and out of its gorgeous self and becomes more fascinating the longer we look at it. That's pretty much true of the entire Munson-Williams-Proctor Collection. It should not be missed.

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