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By Deedee Wigmore

The idea behind this exhibition was to see if it is possible to trace in still life paintings the evolution of modernism in America after the 1913 Armory Show. Our exhibition begins with a still life from Max Weber’s (1881-1961) Paris period titled Chinese Planter with Green Leaves, 1908 as it exhibits the artist’s early connection to Cubism. In 1907 Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso invented Cubism, which broke the tradition of Western painting that the picture plane function as a window through which the viewer sees a space resembling the natural world. Cubism allowed for both perceptual and conceptual depictions of the world within one painting. Weber used new artistic devices offered by Cubism, such as jarring juxtapositions and incongruous grouping of objects to create a narrative. The “tabletop” in Chinese Planter with Green Leaves is no longer traditional, instead it is a red board laid atop a bright yellow chair on which Weber arranges three sculptural vessels which reference other cultures. The painting’s flattened and tipped perspective and reduction of forms to simple geometric shapes result in flat patterns of logically ordered beauty. Our exhibition has additional still life paintings by Max Weber which show his experimentation with form and color in watercolor, pastel, and oil from 1908 to 1921.

Cubism as a new means of depicting form and space left no art style or subject matter untouched when it burst into the American national consciousness as a consequence of the 1913 Armory Show and its attendant publicity. The large French section of the Armory Show in New York introduced a striking selection of the leading European modernists, both Cubist and Fauve. These works were then seen in Chicago and Boston where the Armory Show traveled in an abbreviated form. The resulting discussions surrounding the exhibition in the three major cities stimulated interest in modernist movements. It also made American artists realize the necessity of transforming their European-inspired art into an American idiom if they were to achieve art that was more than derivative in technique and style. The paintings in our still life exhibition demonstrate what different American artists took away from their Armory Show experience. William Schumacher (1870-1931) and Abraham Walkowitz (1880-1965) used colors inspired by the Fauve works they saw at the Armory Show in their still lifes to provide emotional content and strength to an otherwise traditional subject. Alfred Maurer (1868-1932) in Cubist Still Life With Pear and Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974) in Three Pear Composition each considered how color could make their compositions more compelling. In both these still lifes, the artists noted that despite the depth afforded by the perspective of the tabletop, the use of pure color had a flattening effect on the composition. Each saw that by using multiple colors, a pattern of interlocking blocks of color took hold, introducing an abstract element into their still lifes. Other artists focused on Cubist ideas of compression to give a clean edge and concise linearity to their compositions.

The European art market slowed to a halt in 1914 and by 1918 Europe was in ruins. As a result America emerged as an economic world power seeking to express its cultural emancipation from Europe. While Cubism opened the door to experimentation through the 1910s, a new focus on art with themes of modern life developed in the 1920s. Formal experimentation with pictorial space and painterly construction, along with the introduction of an overt narrative in painting mundane objects of everyday life, was central to the rethinking of American still lifes. The new spirit of modernism relieved still life painting of its dead cargo of literature, archeology, and history as subject matter. At the same time Cubism’s off-kilter spatial organization up-ended the sense of perspective in still life paintings to create a modern stance. Examples of this change are seen in Alfred Maurer’s (1868-1932) Still Life No. 7 suggestive of an urban coffee break and in Vaclav Vytlacil’s (1892-1984) Still Life with Blue evoking meal preparation at home. Photography’s enlargement of scale and overhead, side and cropped angle views also began to appear in 1920s painting. Luigi Lucioni’s (1900-1988) Irises, 1928 viewed on a chair at an angle is elegantly painted to express the silky surface of a photograph. Henry Lee McFee’s (1886-1953) use of open space with the stairwell in Still Life with Oranges, c.1927 evokes photography, while the shaker bench set against the stair rail provides a connection to an earlier simplified native design.

The definition of modernism in America remained broad and eclectic in the 1920s as the leap from representational art into a more abstract one was too big to be taken in a single bound in a country with a strong tradition of realism. While Cubism had an extended period of experimentation in American art lasting through the 1930s, American experimentations with modernism were always followed by periods of consolidation. For this reason we have arranged the still life paintings in our exhibition in groups that allow comparisons of degrees of modernism within subjects. In the 1920s an American compromise between realism and abstraction called Precisionism developed. It was achieved by a severe simplification of planes and volumes with interplay of form functioning to correlate its parts into a whole. American architectural, mechanical, and industrial forms provided Precisionism with subjects representing native modernity in shapes easily adapted to geometric abstraction. Precisionism is important as a style because it helped artists discover that still lifes could be treated like geometric architectural structures. Synonymous with a positive attitude towards science, industry, and technology as assets of American culture, Precisionism created a connection in the public mind of modernism with mechanical and architectural forms. The best example of the Precisionist style in our exhibition is Ralston Crawford’s (1906-1978)Still Life on Dough Table, 1932. Another important subject in the art of the 1920s is music. The 1920s connected music with abstraction as a way to describe the emotional response released by abstract form and color. A still life by Jan Matulka (1890-1972) titled Jazz Composition, c.1927 shows Matulka using Cubism to visualize Jazz, a new musical form in which disparate sounds merge into each other for a unified whole, very much like a description of Cubism. Still lifes could reflect the freedom available to Americans during the Jazz Age. Konrad Cramer’s (1888-1963) celebration of the Manhattan in his still life Cocktail, 1926 symbolizes this.

In the 1930s a global economic depression ended the public’s acceptance of abstraction in America. Waves of immigration brought on by the unrest in Europe and migration for jobs in a depressed economy all brought out feelings of nationalism and caused mainstream art to concentrate on man as a social being. It was thought that specific problems of social relations could not be discussed abstractly. Main stream art became representational. It selected, intensified, and created a new image of American life with a focus on urban, rural, and industrial subjects. This representational art was called the American Scene movement and at its best it operated on two levels. On one level a painting portrayed a recognizable part of American life and on another level it operated as a symbol of man’s hope and despair. A still life by Francis de Erdeley (1904-1959) titled Southwestern Arrangement uses symbols of the region’s distinctive Indian culture in its craft and food. Yet in the mirror reflection on the wall a powerful hand opens the narrative to interpretation of whether this is a picture of abundance or a prayer for a successful harvest. Cubism is used in the design of Southwestern Arrangement without the intent to be modern as the Cubist style had become fully integrated into American Scene art.

American Scene art was an effort to forge a new national art. In exploring representational art styles connected with America’s past, 19th century landscape, figure, and still life compositions were rediscovered and ideas appropriated from them were reworked using modernist ideas. An example of this renewal is seen in Martha Walter’s (1875-1976) Still Life with Fish and Lemons which uses Cubist angled depth and compression to renew the traditional fish subject. Paper wrapping under the fish and the reflective tins and bottles on the kitchen table top are props taken from 19th century still lifes. Modern experiments with texture further emphasize surface characteristics in Still Life with Fish and Lemons, while movement from thinly brushed to thickly impastoed textures enables the differentiation of planes in the background. Textured experiments with sand in Vaclav Vytlacil’s (1892-1984) Still Life with Fish, 1930 are coupled with a Cubist perspective offering the fish with its own picture frame within the composition. The importance of place was a key element in American Scene art, an idea taken from the many sight specific Hudson River School landscapes. The fish picture is a traditional subject embraced for its nostalgia and connection to America’s sea faring past. The fish picture by Martha Walters and Vaclav Vytlacil speak of the importance of place referencing each artist’s summers on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard respectively. American Folk Art and Craft were also rediscovered and mined for new style developments by some American artists. Doris Lee (1905-1983) found her personal style in the 1930s by merging Modernism and American Folk Art and using this fusion for feminine narratives of everyday life, as seen in Lee’s Time for Fruit and Vegetables.

Between 1927 and 1940 the American Scene movement dominated American art.  Yet there were a group of artists who saw the continued development of European ideas of modernism as the future of American art. Albert Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art founded in 1927 and open free to artists until 1943 provided stimulus for this group. The Art Students League hired teachers such as Max Weber, Vaclav Vytlacil, and Jan Matulka in the 1920s and Hans Hofmann in 1932, which allowed young artists to choose a modernist direction. Organizations founded to foster progressive art with an emphasis on the education of the general public such as the Society of Independent Artists, founded in 1917, and the Société Anonyme, founded in 1920, hung their exhibitions with a narrative of style development to encourage viewers to understand art’s growth. These exhibitions helped create America’s first non-objective art along with the American Abstract Artists group founded in 1936 to hold exhibitions of abstract art for the public. The arrival of a group of Bauhaus artists during the 1930s and the Surrealists in New York in 1942 provided teachers and further stimulus for American abstraction.

To show the development of pure abstraction in American still life paintings of the 1930s and 1940s, our exhibition offers works in which abstract symbols are used to suggest objects. For example, John Storrs’ (1885-1956) still life titled The Organ, 1932 references smoke stacks, wind mills, silos and iron forging in a composition which speaks of America’s industrial strength. An artist who trained in Paris, Louis Bouché (1896-1969) used Surrealist shapes liberated from his unconscious to give meaning to found objects in Sentinels, 1932. Surrealism offered abstract artists a way to break out of the cubist grid that provided structure to their paintings with the organic shapes of Biomorphism, an outgrowth of Surrealism. Biomorphic forms provided a way to suggest movement and create a narrative as seen in two abstract still lifes titled Chinese Takeout in our exhibition that hint at the diverse fast foods brought to America by other cultures. One collage is by Gertrude Greene (1904-1956) and the other painting is by Willard Grayson Smyth (1906-1995). Among our abstract still life offerings, John Frederick Whiteman (1909-1997) also uses the curvaceous lines provided by Biomorphism in his Still Life With Gin, 1936.

At no time in America’s history has subject matter been of minor concern to our artists. Subject matter releases new waves of feeling and new formal experiments in which to embody them. The task of the still life painter changed from 1913 to 1945 from one in which the artist was to discover and mirror beauty for the delight of the viewer to the task of expressing something of the truth of modern life. With the advent of modernism after the Armory Show of 1913, illusionism was rejected and the still life no longer imitated but rather interpreted nature.



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