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Modernism & Abstraction

Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Academy of Design

February 2 to April 7, 2002

The Art Museum at Florida International University
Miami, Florida

January 7 – March 26, 2000

Colby College Museum of Art
Waterville, Maine

August 1 – October 29, 2000

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
Rochester, New York

January 28 – March 25, 2001

Allentown Art Museum
Allentown, Pennsylvania

April 22 – June 17, 2001

Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Nashville, Tennessee

July 21 – September 9, 2001

Worcester Art Museum
Worcester, Massachusetts

October 7, 2001 – January 6, 2002

Des Moines Art Center
Des Moines, Iowa

May 4-June 30, 2002

"Ascending Space" by George L. K. Morris

"Ascending Space," by George L. K. Morris, gilded bronze on stone base, 67 by 110.2 by 58.7 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

By Carter B. Horsley

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is a major museum with spectacular works by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Eastman Johnson, George Catlin, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and many other very important 19th Century American artists.

It is also rich in 20th century works and during the three-year renovation of its facility in the former Old Patent Office Building, it has decided to let some 500 of its "treasures" travel in eight different exhibitions and this small but superb show at the National Academy of Design at 1083 Fifth Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets, is the one selected, not inappropriately, for New York where so many of the artists worked and lived.

The exhibition is not a comprehensive survey of 20th Century American art but it shines in what it does present and it does much to resurrect some very neglected but fine artists, such as George L. K. Morris (1905-1975), Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988), William Baziotes (1912-1963), Theodore Roszak (1907-1981), and H. Lyman Sayen (1875-1918), while also presenting some knock-out works by such major figures as Max Weber (1881-1961), Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986), Clyfford Still (1904-1980), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967), and Kenneth Noland (born 1924).

Other artists included in the show are such well-known artists as Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Stuart Davis (1894-1964), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Arthur Dove (1880-1946), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Sam Francis (1923-1994), Franz Kline (1910-1962), Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Larry Rivers (born 1923), Helen Frankenthaler (born 1928), Philip Guston (1913-1980), Milton Avery (1885-1965), David Hockney (born 1937), Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971), Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992), Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925), Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Jan Matulka (1890-1972), Joan Mitchell (1926-1992), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Beverly Pepper (born 1924), and Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920).

Other less-known artists in the exhibition are Frederick Brown (born 1945), William Christenberry (born 1936), Gene Davis (1920-1985), William H. Johnson (1901-1970), Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), Jacob Kainen (born 1909), Norman Lewis (1909-1979), Nathan Oliveira (born 1928), Paul Reed (born 1919), Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Bob Thompson (1937-1966), Paul Wonner (born 1920), Esphyr Slobodkina (born 1908), and Mark Tansey (born 1949).

Some stars are missing from this firmament: Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, David Smith, Arshile Gorky, Richard Diebenkorn, Guy Pene du Bois, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, and Mark Rothko.

They are not missed, however, as there is plenty to see and enjoy here and it is a good practice to show lesser-known but deserving artists along with the "names," especially when many of them hold their own quite well.

The finest work in the exhibition is "Ascending Space," a gilden bronze on stone base sculpture by George L. K. Morris, who is known primarily for his wonderful geometrically abstract paintings usually in a rather dark palette. This 1946 work, which measures 67 by 110.2 by 58.7 centimeters, is very striking and dynamic. Somewhat reminiscent of works by Chilida and Archipenko, it is rhythmically bold and very strong. According to the catalogue, Morris produced sculptures between 1935 and 1956 and they usually had projecting triangular or pyramidal forms.

"Ascending Space," it observed, "is a heroic sculpture that celebrates advances in flight. It joins the images of an American Indian arrow and an abstracted airplane in a modern vision. While the trajectories of the forms are dynamic, the three triangles suggest a classic trinity linked by the gracefully curving arc. A founding member of the American abstract Artists, influential critic for the Partisan Review, and Suzy Frelinghuysen's husband, Morris developed a personal kind of abstractioin from studying the formal simplications of Native American art and design, as well as from Parisian Cubism."

"Composition - Toreador Drinking" by Suzy Frelinghuysen

"Composition - Toreador Drinking," by Suzy Frelinghuysen, oil on canvas, 129.9 by 89.3 cm, 1944

Morris's wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen, is represented in the exhibition by "Composition - Toreador Drinking," shown above, a 129.8-by-89.3-centimeter oil on canvas, executed in 1944. It is a very fine work that recalls some of Juan Gris's Cubist works but Frelinghuysen has used a softer palette and more curves. The artist, according to the catalogue, "brought humor and elegance to synthetic cubism.," adding that in this work, "a slender character sits up straight, with glass and carafe nearby, locked within a checkerboard construction that simplifies figure and setting to the same formal common denominator." Describing her unusual palette as pleasing and tart" and her composition as "engagingly complex," the catalogue entry said that the artist was "a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and a collector who helped introduce avant-garde European Art to the United States" as well as a "professional opera singer."

"Recording Sound" by Theodore Roszak

"Recording Sound," by Theodore Roszak, plaster and oil on wood, 81.3 by 121.9 by 17.1 centimeters, 1932

A very intriguing and strong work is "Recording Sound," shown above, a plaster and oil on wood work, 81.3 by 121.9 by 17.1 centimeters, executed in 1932 by Theodore Roszak, another artist/musician. "An accomplished violinist," the catalogue entry maintained, "Theodore Roszak encompasses the world of live performance within the gramophone's trumpet, an operatic scene that presents sound's origin and transmission. A balloon, floating above the machine, is a metaphor for the transporting power of music. He also loved geometric forms and inscribed the image's mini-universe in a perfect circle, a form echoed throughout the composition. Roszak was an industrial artist who appreciated modern technology and wanted to integrate the arts and industry."

"The Thundershower" by H. Lyman Säyen

"The Thundershower," by H. Lyman Säyen, tempera, 91.4 by 116.8 centimeters, circa 1917-8.

Less precision-like and more colorful is "The Thundershower," shown above, by H. Lyman Säyen, a 91.4-by-116.8-centimeter tempera that was given by the artist to the Smithsonian American Museum as a gift "to his nation."

The work, the catalogue entry noted, "is an energetic tableau that condenses indoor and outdoor views, with wallpapered walls and striped floors, into patterned and solid color planes. It reveals the influences of Säyen's perceptual experiments with a revolving disk. Creaking hs own version of futurism, Säyen made compositions that unfold like fans. Arabesques of color flatten the shallow, stagelike scene, their rhythms drawing our attention to the arcs of pink rain and curvaceous female bodies. Thundershower is filed with the joie de vivre that Säyen had absorbed from studying with Matisse." The artist was an inventor of X-ray tubes and procedures, the catalogue continued, "engineer of electrical instruments, commercial artist, oil painter and graphic artist."

"Untitled (Manhattan)" by Georgia O'Keefe

"Untitled (Manhattan)," by Georgia O'Keefe, oil on canvas, 214.3 by 122.4 centimeters, 1932

A similar, dance-like lyricism is evident in Georgia O'Keefe's "Untitled (Manhattan)," shown above, a 214.3-by-122.4-centimeter oil that is the artist's only mural painting. It was created for the opening exhibition in 1932 of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. O'Keefe, who lived for many years with Alfred Stieglitz on the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue and 48th Street, depicted Manhattan's skyscrapers many times and this is one of her strongest compositions although her placement of roses detracts somewhat from its forcefulness although it adds a bit of dream-like reverie.

Not all the works in the exhibition are reproduced in the catalogue and another O'Keefe, "Only One," a 1959 painting, is one of the finest in the show, a bold, abstract landscape.

Franz Kline is a consistent strong Abstract Expressionist and "Merce C," is a fine example. The 236.2-by-189.4-centimeter oil on canvas is a typical flourish of dark black on a white background and is, according to the catalogue entry, a portrait of Kline's friend, Merce Cunningham the great dancer and choreographer. While Cunningham is not recognizable in this painting, its animated brushwork and angularity do strongly suggest Cunningham's frenetic and idiosyncratic style.

The exhibition has another fine abstract painting that is also a portrait of an artist's friend. It is "Dabrowsky V," a 03.2-by-254-centimeter oil on canvas by Jacob Kainen, who named the work after his friend, John Graham, the artist who was known as Ivan Dabrowsky in Russia before immigrating to the Untied States, according to the catalogue entry.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"With colors reflecting Graham's Russian palette, the soft-edge geometric shapes, according to Kainen, stand for Graham's 'austere magical personality.' The dynamic positioning of shapes, balance, and massing reflect Graham's intense personality. Dabrowsky V is one of an occasional series with similar forms in different colors, sizes, and proportions. The soft colors and simple geometric shapes, arranged at purposeful intervals, establish harmony. The indeterminate identities of these forms allude to the mysterious symbols Graham used in his paintings."

This is a very lovely, warm work that conjures the hotter abstractions of Adolph Gottlieb and the cooler abstractions of Bradley Tomlin Walker, but is less insistent than either, which is not a bad thing.

"Harbor under the Midnight Sun," a 71-by-95.3-centimeter oil by William H. Johnson is a vibrant and explosive landscape that most likely would have struck Marsden Hartley rather dumb with delight. The 1937 painting depicts Svolvaer, a fjord in Norway where the artist lived for five years. This is a stunning work and a strong challenger for the best painting in the show. It is outclassed however, by Robert Motherwell's "Monster (for Charles Ives)," shown below, a lively work that clearly depicts a rather lovable monster. Motherwell's painting, executed in 1959, wins out over Johnson's because Motherwell's painting is huge: 198.8 by 300.4 centimeters. Motherwell, according to the catalogue, conceived the monumental image while listened to music by Charles Ives, and it is one of his best works.

"Monster (for Charles Ives)" by Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell's "Monster (for Charles Ives)," by Robert Motherwell, oil on canvas, 198.8 by 300.4 centimeters, 1959

Another excellent and bold abstraction dated from 1959 is "Split," a 237.8-by-238.5-centimeter acrylic on canvas by Kenneth Noland. Between 1956 and 1963, Noland executed about 200 "circle" paintings but this one is certainly one of the best.

Motherwell's dark brown "monster" is a good companion piece for "1964-H (Indian Red and Black," an excellent example of Clyfford Still's superb abstraction. "The rugged silhouette, crusty surface, and vast scale of Clyfford Still's paintings reflect his North Dakota homeland.[and its] jagged flamelike forms, slashing streaks of black and white, and thickly painted intense colors create a dramatic panorama. Still was a visionary artist committed to establishing a distinctly American aesthetic. In creating images of limitless scale, he conveyed a palpable sense of freedom," the catalogue entry stated. This oil on canvas measures 198.8 by 173.7 centimeters and was executed in 1946.

"1964-H (Indian Red and Black)" by Clyfford Still

"1964-H (Indian Red and Black," by Clyfford Still, oil on canvas, 198.8 by 173.7 centimeters, 1946

A bold and very impressive contrast to the Still is "Interception," a striking 1996 oil by Mark Tansey that is a dark, swirling scene of delicate and awesome mystery. The artist, the catalogue noted, "combines realism, intellectual theory, literary associations, and a sense of the uncanny to construct postmodern allegories. Striking contrasts of dark and light, great discrepancies of scale, and shifting perspectives dramatize the nocturnal scene in Interception. We look at the scene as if it were a movie, peering into a charred landscape where figures struggle to control a billowing cloth. A giant beam of light illuminates the cloth, revealing images as projections and reflections. The figures allude to a Greek legend about the origin of art: Painting was invented when a young woman traced the silhouette of her love, cast as a shadow by firelight onto a wall. The magic of representation is the theme of that myth and this painting."

"Scepter" by William Baziotes

"Scepter" by William Baziotes, oil on canvas, 167.7 by 198.4 centimeters, 1960-1

The immense celebrity of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism overpowered some very fine abstract talents such as William Baziotes and Theodore Stamos, two kindred spirits who consistently produced lyrical and poetic abstractions that were usually warmer and softer than many Abstract Expressionist works. Although Stamos is not included in the exhibition, Baziotes is represented by "Scepter," a 1960-1 oil on canvas, 167.7 by 198.4 centimeters, shown above, one of the show's highlights.

Baziotes, according to the catalogue, "painted primeval dreamworlds. Here, two presences seem to confront each other in a mythic encounter. Their buoyancy and the dappled background evoke a primordial sea, but this ancient broth already contains in the sceptered form the germ of pride and complexity that evolved in later, human life. This netherworld brims with both stillness and drama."

"Grey Sun" by Isamu Noguchi

"Grey Sun," by Isamu Noguchi, marble, 102.5 by 100 by 42.8 centimeters, 1967

A perfect sculptural match for the Baziotes is "Grey Sun," a large marble work, shown above, by Isamu Noguchi, shown above, which was executed in 1967. Noguchi, who is perhaps the finest abstract sculptor of the 20th Century, "made visible the basic forms and forces of nature, using natural materials and fundamental shapes," according to the catalogue, which was written by Miranda McClintic and published by Watson-Guptill Publications/New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which was formerly known as the National Museum of American Art. "Noguchi frequently used the circle as a timeless, universal symbol, related to the sun, origin of life, and basis of numerical systems," the catalogue entry added. This is a very fine Noguchi, notable for its lyrical form and subtle incisions.

"Summer," by Max Weber, oil on canvas, 102.2 by 60.6 centimeters, 1909

The most luscious work in the exhibition is "Summer," a 1909 painting, shown above, by Max Weber, that combines the artist's interests in Tribal Art, Cubism, and the influence of the "Bathers" by Cézanne into a richly and deeply saturated, Gauguin-like landscape that resonates with earthly pleasures and voluptuous naked women.

Its dance-like quality is mirrored in a very fine and colorful 1940 abstraction, "Untitled," by Ad Rinehardt whose complex jumble of mostly rectinlinear lines of varying widths conveys the jazziness of Stuart Davis and Piet Mondrian and the transcendental abstractions of Irene Rice Pereira. Davis is also represented in the show, albeit with a minor but typical work, but Pereira's work is atypical of her later intriguing geometric abstractions.

The Principal Financial Group is a sponsor of the traveling exhibitions and Watson-Guptil Publications, a division of BPI Communications, Inc., 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 is the publisher of the catalogues, which cost only $19.95 each. The other titles in the series are "Scenes of American Life," "Arte Latino," "Contemporary Folk Art," "American Impressionism," "The Gilded Age," "Lure of the West" and "Young America." They are available from for 30 percent off their list prices and are excellent, although the commentaries are brief.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and now has about 38,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and objects. Its main building, the Old Patent Office building, closed on Jan. 3, 2000 for a three-year renovation, but the museum is continuing a full program of craft exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery, located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call Smithsonian Information at (202) 357-2700.

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