To get a taste of exuberant optimism, travel back with the Whitney Museum of American Art in At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism, on view through February 26.
It’s a showcase for art created at the beginning of the 20th century – a time when European experimentation in abstraction, urban skyscrapers and other engineering marvels, Einstein’s breakthroughs, and the success of the women’s suffrage movement made artists optimistic about the future.
The show features work by well-known (and well loved) artists like lyrical abstractionist Georgia O’Keefe (Music, Pink and Blue No.2) and transcendentalist Agnes Pelton (Ahmi in Egypt).
But the news story here is the Whitney’s interest in pulling work by their contemporaries out of storage to provide a more expansive look at early American modernism. Nearly half of the works on display have not been out of the stacks for more than 30 years!
Look at Albert Bloch’s 1916 Mountain, which hasn’t been shown at The Whitney in 50 years. It’s somewhat shocking when you consider that Bloch was the only American invited to join the ground-breaking Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. It’s fitting that Bloch’s nearly forgotten, expressionist landscape was resurrected and featured as the show’s icon – a traveler on an upward journey toward a town on the hill amidst modernist peaks.
The Whitney’s also pulled Carl Newman’s 1917 Bathers out of storage for this show and hung it side-by-side with Bloch.
Newman was an Academy-trained artist from Philly, but after getting swept up in the Parisian avant-garde one summer, he tried throwing art conventions out the window.
Color, rainbows, naughty nudes, pleasure craft – a scandalous and joyous mix!
And what about another “forgotten” convention-breaker? The vibrant 1926 Street Scene is by Yun Gee, a Chinese immigrant modernist who started his art career in San Francisco, but found more acceptance and exhibition opportunities in Paris. Gee was the only Chinese artist running in European modernist circles, and it’s nice to see his cubist expression of San Francisco’s Chinatown right where it belongs in the Whitney’s pantheon.
Works by some of our modernist favorites are also featured – synchronist master Stanton Macdonald Wright, shape-shifter Arthur Dove, and former Brancusi studio assistant and abstracted design leader, Isamu Noguchi.
The stories and careers go on. The exhibition features artists from the West Coast, artists that fled to Paris and found success there, and some modernists that just couldn’t make a go of it and stopped making art entirely.
Henrietta Shore, the Los Angeles innovator who Edward Weston credits as a great influence on his style, was one who eventually opted out.
It’s a beautiful walk through the early 20th century to meet a new set of painters using abstraction to channel an optimistic future – E.E. Cummings (yes, the poet!), Blanche Lazzell of Provincetown, Aaron Douglas of the Harlem Renaissance, and Pamela Colman Smith of Tarot card fame.
Here’s a short video by curator Barbara Haskell where she talks about what it was like to find “forgotten” paintings and other stories behind the Whitney’s fascinating modernist reveal: