Commentary Magazine

Modernism, American-Style

Modern Starts: People, Places, Things, which was on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from October 7, 1999 to March 14, 2000, was the first of three exhibitions organized as part of the museum’s millennial celebration, MoMA 2000. Modern Starts focused on the years 1880 to 1920. The next installment, Making Choices, covers the years 1920 to 1960—it is now on view through August 22—and the final installment will cover the period from 1960 to the present. All three are intended to showcase what is unquestionably one of the finest and most important collections of modern art in the world.

And what a showcase it is. One could easily have spent several hours a day over a span of several days and still not have seen everything in Modern Starts. One could also have chosen to ignore the tripartite thematic arrangement devised to present the museum’s permanent collection in a “new” way. For the best of these works remain timelessly fresh and afford seemingly inexhaustible pleasures.

To take but a few highlights: there was the impossibly coherent Fauve landscape, Bridge over the Riou (1906), by André Dérain, in which the painter laid down, in daubs, strips, and patches, combinations of color that seem both wildly out of control and completely self-modulating at the same time. Or one could dwell on a light-inflected Cubist still life by Picasso, or a series of haunting color woodcuts by Edvard Munch. And then there were two landscapes by Cézanne, painted years apart, the former showing a well-rendered scene and the latter his mature method, an extraordinarily subtle and infinite patchwork of color strokes that pointed the way beyond Impressionist realism to the modernists’ concern with the autonomy of the work of art itself.

It was, indeed, precisely this concern that coursed through Modern Starts like an animating force, leading the viewer past and through the multimedia groupings, anachronistic juxtapositions, and mixing-up of works of varying quality to fasten on one great painting after another. Giorgio de Chirico’s Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) [1914]; Mondrian’s Church Façade (1914); Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying (1915); Miro’s Birth of the World (1925); Juan Gris’s The Sideboard (1917)—all led into a world created by and contained by the canvas itself.

Perhaps no picture had as strong an impact in this regard as Matisse’s The Blue Window (1913). That painting shows Matisse’s characteristic collapse of interior and exterior space in a vertical format, with a stylized landscape framed by a window and mirrored by the floor of an equally stylized room. The simplified, mostly rounded forms of various things within and without—vases, flowers, lamps, tables, plates; trees, the roof of a house, a cloud, hills—are freely and loosely drawn and suspended in a single plane. Their “incorrect” proportions and the irregular pattern of color they create—the eye bounces from a series of yellow ochre shapes to smaller ones of green, blue, red, and orange set against the predominating green-tinged blue—allow them to echo, balance, or converge with each other in a peaceful harmony of stationary movement. Upon seeing this picture, one cannot help smiling out loud.

The Blue Window is a miracle of expressive power. And similar miracles were available in the other wonderful Matisses on display in Modern Starts, including Goldfish and Palette (1914), View of Notre Dame (1914), and Gourds (1915-16). The point brought home by these pictures, along with many others, was that modern art is, first but not last, a visual achievement. That is, what activates a viewer’s response, not only mental but also emotional and spiritual, even physical, is the experience of seeing an arrangement of forms, of color and line. It is the arrangement that one seizes on first, and by which one is seized in turn; only then does one begin to notice the details of the composition.

This implies, of course, a subordination of the subject, whether it be a figure, a still life, or a landscape—and this subordination, too, was critical to the modernist enterprise. It is what made possible the extraordinary flowering of new types of painting so gloriously represented at MoMA. Just how glorious was plain enough to any visitor to Modern Starts. But just how extraordinary could be fully grasped only by setting this achievement—primarily a Parisian phenomenon—against other examples of modern art. Fortunately, an exhibit currently on view at the National Gallery in Washington provides an instructive basis of comparison.

Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection1 is one of the most interesting among recent exhibits of the holdings of a single owner. Although it contains a number of works that represent American modernism at its best—they include Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929); Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Red Strokes (1950); John Marin’s watercolor From Deer Isle, Maine (1922); Arshile Gorky’s Good Afternoon Mrs. Lincoln (1944); Stuart Davis’s Still Life in the Street (French Landscape) [c. 1941]; Gaston Lachaise’s sculpture, Back of a Walking Woman (c. 1922); and Alexander Calder’s sculpture Le Coq (Hen) [c. 1944]—most of the other works in the show do not match this standard. They are of interest less for their quality, which varies greatly, than for what they reveal about the character of much of American modernist painting in the period before the emergence of Abstract Expressionism—and especially about how American modernism differed from its European progenitors.

One seemed here to be in the midst of a diverse group of artists working in different styles and in response to a variety of European influences. Andrew Dasburg’s Landscape (1913), for example, shows the use of what this artist took to be Cézanne’s technique. Yet Dasburg’s choppy brushstrokes and patches of color are not integrated in such a way as to make one think, “That’s a painting.” Rather, what one thinks is, “That’s a landscape scene done by someone trying to imitate Cézanne.” Similarly, Blue Diamond (1940-41), by Ilya Bolotowsky, looks like a crooked Mondrian, but lacks Mondrian’s sense of pictorial balance, purity, and tension-based harmony.

The point is not that imitation leads necessarily to failure or second-rate work; Matisse once said he would have been a fool not to have tried to imitate his predecessors. The point, rather, is that attempting to use or adapt another painter’s technique, however perfected, is not by itself enough to create a painting that will genuinely hold our interest. I should add, of course, that success in such cases is a relative matter, and a number of the clearly derivative paintings in this show do in fact succeed to one degree or another, from William Glackens’s Café Lafayette (Portrait of Kay Laurell) [1914], which looks like a Renoir, to David Smith’s Untitled (The Billiard Players) [1936], inspired by Picasso’s post-Cubist work; from the Cubist-style pictures by Byron Browne, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and Albert E. Gallatin, to Esphyr Slobodkina’s Miro-esque abstraction, Ancient Sea Song (Large Picture) [1943-45], and Jean Xceron’s Composition 239A (1937), which evokes Kandinsky.

Many of the works in this show seem to have little direct relation to one another. The big exception is a group of precisionist landscapes and still lifes, including pictures by Charles Sheeler, George Ault, Stefan Hirsch, and Francis Criss, which are characterized by geometrically delineated forms and an illusion of deep space. Some of these are quite striking in the refinement of their technique; and some, like Sheeler’s Catwalk (1947) and Ault’s Fruit Bowl on Red Oilcloth (1930), are compositionally strong as well. Yet, taken together, they tend to confirm the impression one has already gotten from more than a few of the other paintings on display: they are works that appropriate the formal innovations of European modernism but lack something essential to its spirit.



What that something is can best be described as a convincing sense of artistic authority. In the case of the precisionists and a good number of the other painters, one can be even more specific: what is missing is an attitude of aesthetic ruthlessness.

A critic once said of Cézanne that he showed no “respect” for the things he painted. The same could be said of Matisse, who, to cite a well-known example, once painted a picture of his wife with a thick green line down the middle of her face. Such a lack of “respect” entails, or is synonymous with, a refusal to defer to artistic conventions, particularly those regarding beauty, and a determination to give priority not to the natural world but to the requirements of the life of the canvas.2 In the making of a painting, this attitude requires that devotion to the “subject” be abandoned.

Yet as this exhibit makes clear, some such loyalty to the subject remained an important part of the sensibility of many American modernists. This is indicated, chiefly, by the fussiness of their work. This fussiness—particularly in the precisionist pictures—is not to be confused with the careful calibrations of, say, Juan Gris, the most “geometrical” of the three great Cubist painters (the other two being Brâque and Picasso), or of Mondrian, whose unique abstractions exude a similar exactitude of artistic thought. For Gris or Mondrian, the use of precisely gauged lines and forms reflected a deliberate casting-off of aesthetic inhibitions for the purpose of creating, within the boundaries of the canvas, a self-sustaining composition. For the Americans, by contrast, such precision seems to have been an expression of almost the opposite: a bottling-up designed to contain a romantic attachment to the things being represented, or to a way of life symbolized or recalled by those things.

The fastidiousness of the American precisionists’ style gives to their depictions a quality that makes them seem both unreal and somehow sentimental at the same time. It is this quality that no doubt explains why, in the Washington exhibit, these works seem so at home with the examples of American surrealism, like Ault’s Universal Symphony (1947) and Louis Guglielmi’s Mental Geography (1938), or of modernist folk art, like Guglielmi’s Land of Canaan (1934) and Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s The Picnic (1928), that hang along with them.

Nor are these the only works in the show that partake, in one way or another, of a romantic spirit. One encounters it, in more muted ways, in some of the very first pictures one sees upon entering: Arthur Dove’s Moon (1935), Georgia O’Keefe’s Sunrise (1916), and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 49, Berlin (Portrait of a German Officer) (Berlin Abstraction) [1914-15]. The feeling of these works seems somewhat at odds with their abstract means and tends to limit, to a greater or lesser extent, their vitality. One has a similar response to some of the show’s other abstract works, which oddly seem to have turned the modern style of which they themselves are emulations into a “subject” of longing.



The repressed tension between the effort to apply modernist precepts and methods and the urge to express a characteristically American romantic outlook—whether on nature, the past, open spaces, or aspects of modern life—pervades much of the Ebsworth show, imposing a peculiar psychic burden on the viewer. In many cases, the works reflect an interest in realizing a desire for clarity, but what might be called the independent demands of the canvas are overridden. As a result, the pictures have an order about them, but it is an order disturbed. Ultimately, there is no release, only a nagging sense of lurking disharmony.

It is no doubt for these reasons that, when one reaches the next-to-last room and catches sight of Jasper Johns’s large, vigorously brushed monochrome Gray Rectangles (1957), one feels a sudden sense of relief and a palpable breath of fresh air. Here at last, one thinks, looking at this painting done in what might seem the dullest color possible, is an artistic spirit that has set itself free and, in a truly novel way, created an object that envelops one in a flurry of visual and mental sensations.

Though Johns himself was not part of the group of painters known as the Abstract Expressionists who emerged in the 1940’s and 50’s, this entirely unromantic picture makes one realize just why they had the impact they did, and why they were so enthusiastically celebrated after they appeared on the scene. For they had found an American response to European modernism that went very far in actualizing its true spirit, rather than merely trying to imitate its forms or applying them in disharmonious ways.

Nor is this the only contribution made by the Ebsworth show to a historical understanding of the evolution of American art. In contrast to Gray Rectangles, but in line with some of the other paintings I have discussed, there in the last room of the exhibit was Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup with Can Opener (1962), a work that makes unmistakably clear how Pop Art, too, whatever else one may say about it, draws from the well of America’s romantic view of itself—and in particular from our ongoing and almost automatic nostalgia, even for the immediate past. Slick, gentle, and compositionally weak, Campbell’s Soup may not be much of a painting; but thanks to this exhibit, and to the illuminating contrast it offers to MoMA’s Modern Starts, we know where it came from.



1 The exhibit, which runs until June 11, will also be at the Seattle Art Museum from August 10 to November 12.

2 In Point and Line to Plane, Wassily Kandinsky wrote: “We must . . . definitely assume that every artist feels—even though unconsciously—the ‘breathing’ of the still untouched BP [basic plane, the surface on which the artist is to work] and that he feels—more or less consciously—a responsibility toward this being and is aware of the fact that frivolous abuse of it is akin to murder.”


About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.