Modernism Unmoored

American Modern: Hopper to O'Keeffe, is a show in search of a purpose. The exhibit, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art last week and runs through January 2014, gathers together some 115 paintings, photographs and sculptural works by American artists between 1915 and 1950, a year before the Ninth Street Art Exhibition inaugurated the age of abstract expressionism and New York School hegemony. Had it been given more careful curatorial consideration the exhibition could have been one of the most important of the year. Disappointingly, it falls short.

​American Modern features some outstanding work, almost all of it drawn from the museum's permanent collection. Striking paintings by Stuart Davis, Max Weber and Joseph Stella sit alongside gorgeous prints by Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler (whose "White Barn, Buckstown, Pennsylvania," a masterwork of black and white photography, is the best of the bunch.)  Also included are weaker efforts from George Bellows, Peter Blume and John Marin. Not surprisingly, ample room is given to Georgia O'Keeffe -- including her stunning watercolor, "Evening Star No. III" -- and Edward Hopper, a pair that should ensure the exhibit's box office success throughout the fall. Hopper's "House by the Railroad," better known as the Bates Mansion from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, will draw the tourist hordes on its own.  

​All the more remarkable, then, that MoMA's curators were unable to establish a center of gravity to ground their American showcase. The near total absence of text throughout the exhibit suggests they didn't even try. Instead, visitors are paraded past one chunk of work after another -- here are the O'Keeffes, there the Marsden Hartleys; Jacob Lawrence's work sits in this corner, Charles Burchfield's is hung in that one across the room.  While there is some interplay between the various works as they have been arranged, it becomes clear pretty quickly that American Modern has neither rhythm nor anchor.  

Too bad.  It isn't for want of opportunity that American Modern fails to spark the imagination. A number of points present themselves throughout the galleries in which MoMA's curators could have added heft to their presentation, and developed an argument about the "Americanness" of the modern experience in the United States at the turn of the last century. Take, for instance, Preston Dickinson's snowy "Harlem River," and Sheeler's "American Landscape," depicting Ford Motor's famous Red River automobile factory in Michigan -- muscular works, each, treating nature's growing colonization by urban industry.

Much can be said here, not just about the works themselves but about their relationship to the present period of economic uncertainty and industrialization's legacy of urban ruin in places like Dearborn and Detroit. Easy connections could likewise be drawn from Dickinson and Sheeler to Bellows' astonishing paintings from the same period of New York City's industrialized waterways, and the construction of Penn Station. Instead, visitors are silently given lithographs of Bellows' boxers without reference to his larger body of work, or anything else for that matter. Any logical threads that could have been used to tie together otherwise disparate artists, or connect past and present, are left hanging.

And what about the smoldering eroticism pulsating through a good deal of the photos and paintings on view? Selections of work by Man Ray, O'Keeffe, Hopper and Preston Dickinson simply scream sex, but all of it is presented coldly and without comment by the show's curators. To take but one example, it is almost impossible to imagine Gerald Murphy's "Wasp and Pear" having its over-the-top suggestiveness neutralized in any setting, but MoMA has managed to pull it off here. Hopper's "Night Windows," with its plump rumps, raging fires and gently breezing curtains feels similarly indistinct, sandwiched between other paintings on a crowded wall.

What's absent from the exhibit -- a clear rationale -- isn't to be found in the accompanying catalogue, either. The book, slim for a major exhibit, opens with a halfhearted attempt at historical revisionism by the museum's director, Robert Lowry.  "Although contemporary readers are as likely to associate an American artist such as Jackson Pollock with the Museum as a Spaniard like Pablo Picasso," Lowry writes, "in the past MoMA was repeatedly accused of an international bias." Despite Lowry's admission that it is, "no longer urgent," he argues that, "the current exhibit resoundingly challenges that notion," testifying, "to the inclusive vision that has always characterized this institution's programming." Not exactly riveting stuff.  

Lowry's closing observations, vapid and inaccurate, can't claim much utility for those looking to make sense of what they've seen in his museum's gallery space. "At a time when national boundaries seem increasingly porous, and when museums strive to expand the international scope of their programming to previously understudied artists and histories," Lowry notes, "many works in American Modern may seem like old friends. Now as then, MoMA remains 'deeply concerned with American art,' and this exhibition provides an opportunity for contemporary viewers to reconsider them in their historical context."

The introductory essay by the show's curators, Kathy Curry and Esther Adler, is equally ho-hum. Curry and Adler tell readers what they easily glean themselves from attending the exhibit -- namely, that American artists between 1915 and 1950 were concerned with representing the national landscape, except when they weren't, in which case the focus switched to people and things. The curators write:

The continued exploration of a particular subject matter -- the American landscape and the people and objects that filled it -- over the course of those years suggests a shared though not exclusive approach, one shaped by an acute awareness of that world, and more specifically of the fact that it was changing.

There's a faint scent of intellectual laziness, if not fraud, about all this. Curry and Adler are correct when they argue that the show, "is not an encyclopedic review of American art of that period, nor is it an argument for a native style free of outside influence." The trouble is that when all is said and done, American Modern is defined by what it isn't more than what it is.  If there exists a sense in which these works hang together more coherently in the exhibit than they do sprinkled throughout MoMA's regular galleries, the curators aren't saying.  

There's also none of the context suggested by Lowry on offer in American Modern.  The curators claim, for example, that, "the visual dialogue with international artists and art movements is obvious here, despite attempts by critics and scholars from that earlier time to deny it." How did that dialogue take shape? Why did critics and scholars attempt to deny it? These questions, and many others that come to mind when taking in the totality of works on display, are left unanswered in the essay, and aren't even asked in the exhibit.    

It should be noted that the catalogue features a lengthier, more substantive essay by Adler on the history of MoMA's dealings with American art and artists in the years before Abstract Expressionism grabbed the world's attention. The narrative here amounts to a detailed elaboration of Lowry's opening defense of his institution's longstanding appreciation for American modernism, and it is done exceedingly well. Adler's article will undoubtedly be of academic value and use to those interested in the museum's evolution.

But if the catalogue accompanying American Modern represents MoMA's commitment, in the words of Lowry, to "constantly revis[e] the narrative of its own history," it just as assuredly reminds us of a distinct absence of obligation to the average museum-goer. MoMA had the chance to do something interesting, and above all, important, with this show of its American holdings. The curators could have seized the opportunity to contribute valuable insights to our understandings of the period, the artists who gave it life, and its place within the wider sweep of modern art's development in the 20th century. They did none of these things. Instead, they chose to mount a show whose whole is much less than the sum of its parts.