Avis Berman, curator and writer, documents the radical transformations of 20th Century American Modernism
THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, CELEBRATING ITS FIRST ANNIVERSARY IN ITS GLORIOUS NEW RENZO PIANO BUILDING AT THE BASE OF THE HIGH LINE, OPENS STUART DAVIS: IN FULL SWING, ON JUNE 10th. STUART DAVIS WAS A REVOLUTIONARY MODERNIST ARTIST FIRST TO APPROPRIATE IMAGES FROM THE WORLD OF ADVERTISING INTO HIS PAINTINGS. HE CREATED AN ART THAT MERGED EUROPEAN AVANT-GARDE ABSTRACTION WITH THE ENERGY OF FAMILIAR AMERICAN SIGNS AND SYMBOLS , THUS SETTING THE STAGE FOR JASPER JOHNS, ED RUSCHA, BARBARA KRUGER AND COUNTLESS “WORD AND IMAGE” ARTISTS WHO FOLLOWED.
THIS WILL BE THE MOST RECENT OF MANY EXHIBITIONS, IN BOTH MAJOR MUSEUMS SUCH AS THE WHITNEY AND MORE MODEST REGIONAL AND UNIVERSITY MUSEUM VENUES THAT FOCUS ON THE TRANSFORMATIVE PERIOD OF MODERNIST AMERICAN ART REPRESENTING ONLY ONE DYNAMIC ASPECT IN THE EXPLOSION OF 19th CENTURY NORMS IN SOCIETY AND CULTURE IN GENERAL.
TODAY, THE LRFA BLOG WELCOMES BACK AVIS BERMAN, WRITER, CURATOR AND EXPERT ON AMERICAN MODERNISM.
AVIS, YOUR NUMEROUS CONTRIBUTIONS INCLUDE NEWSPAPER PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, AND THE BOSTON GLOBE, JUST TO NAME A VERY FEW. I AM ASSUMING THAT YOU WERE ACTING IN THE ROLE OF A REVIEWER OF EXHIBITIONS.
I almost never review exhibitions. I prefer to write long, research-based pieces that rely on primary sources. These articles were profiles of artists, observations on the social history of the art and artists, art-travel pieces, and book reviews.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS THAT, IN RETROSPECT, WERE PARTICULARLY SIGNIFICANT AND WHY?
One of the most significant articles that I wrote was called “Sculptor in the Open Air: Elie Nadelman and Folk and Popular Art.” It was the first research to delve deeply into the myriad aspects of artist’s connection with aspects of Polish, French, American, and other European folk arts, and I presented many new ideas, based on both my own analyses and on previously overlooked archival sources. The essay was for an AFA exhibition called “Classical Folk.” It was an excellent show, but it didn’t receive much publicity, especially because the Whitney was mounting a large Nadelman retrospective shortly to follow, but the article has been consistently cited (and sometimes plundered) ever since.
Recently I wrote two different types of articles that gave me much pleasure because they were so different from the norm. One was an essay about images of urban night in early twentieth-century American painting and photography for the catalogue of “Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960,” an exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
THE CATALOGUE OF NIGHT VISION: NOCTURNES IN AMERICAN ART, 1860 – 1960 MEMORIALIZED A MAJOR EXHIBITION OF AMERICAN ART AT THE BOWDOIN COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART IN MAINE FROM JUNE – OCTOBER 2015 . THE FIRST SIGNIFICANT SURVEY OF AMERICAN NIGHT SCENES BY ARTISTS SUCH AS ANDREW WYETH, GEORGIA O’KEEFFE AND WINSLOW HOMER, IT EXPLORES THE DEPARTURE FROM THE CONVENTIONAL STYLES AND TRADITIONS THAT TRANSFORMED OUR AMERICAN ART AND CULTURE WITH THE ADVENT OF NEW POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND TECHNOLOGY.
AVIS, WHAT WAS THE FOCUS OF YOUR ESSAY IN THE CATALOGUE AND WHY?
For “City Lights: Urban Perceptions of Night,” I approached the work of artists from Hassam and Steichen and Stieglitz to Sloan and Hopper and Martin Lewis as evolving responses to the phenomenon of New York jettisoning gas lamps for electrification. Focusing on these images in relation to a new technology fascinated me.
IN HER OWN WORDS, SOME EXCERPTS FROM THE ESSAY:
Beginning in the early 1880s,New York’s main source of nighttime light was no longer the faraway moon or the stuttering flame of a gas lamp, but the clear, steady glow of the incandescent filament. These brilliantly illuminated streets, public places, and private residences changed entire patterns of existence, to which contemporary artists had to respond. Electrification catapulted New York into the modern age and pushed artists to chronicle the city’s altered tempo and appearance. Just as Whistler’s melding of forms, textures, and colors of his night scenes took him to the brink of abstraction, most daringly in Nocturne in Black and Gold. The Falling Rocket (fig. 1), contending with the electrified city after dark meant that his successors would reveal a host of new forces at work in their representations of New York….
When the Bostonian Childe Hassam moved to New York in 1889. he was determined to capture the daily occurrences of urban life, at least in the city’s more refined precincts. His vision extended beyond New York’s streets, buildings, and inhabitants to include the exploitation of natural phenomena. Like Whistler and the French Impressionists, he sought to capture atmospheric light in all its embodiments— during rain, snow, and mist, and after dark. These interests coalesce in Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square, especially as Hassam was an eager portrayer of horse-drawn cabs. Sometimes he even hired one as an on-site studio, using the seat in front of him to set up an easel.3 In describing how he created the painting that is probably Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square, Hassam stated, “I use an ordinary sketch book and pencil a great deal for making notes of characteristic attitudes and movements…
One would hardly expect to find affinities between the talented but moderate Hassam and Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, innovators who were leaders of the photographic avant-garde. Stieglitz claimed to be the first photographer to achieve success with night photography and, in 1898, a year after he began composing nocturnal scenes, he stated that their expressive potential opened “up certain possibilities that have not as yet been attempted.”
The unalloyed triumphs of technology without which the modern city is inconceivable—incandescent lighting and the tall building—are apotheosized in Berenice Abbott’s anthem to the electrical grid, New York at Night (alternately titled Night View:Midtown Manhattan). The spectacular Olympian view of towers blazing like icy prisms on a dry winter evening was taken from a high floor of the Empire State Building, the successor to the Flatiron and the Chanin buildings as New York’s reigning icon of architectural modernity. Abbott had to calibrate exactly when the night would begin in order to get what she envisioned. She knew that most employees worked in their offices only until about five o’clock, after which the lights would be turned off. She thus waited until one of the shortest days of the year December 20.1934 – to create the photograph. At sunset, shortly before five, when evening began for most workers, Abbott exposed the negative for fifteen minutes and created an immaculate image of “the vertical city with its unimaginable diamonds. Night was no longer there to veil New York’s architecture: it was to exalt it. Artificial light had conquered nature and taken possession of it.
IN THE NEXT LRFA BLOG, AVIS WILL INFORM US ON HER STUDY OF THE NEW HALL COLLECTION AT CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY’S MURRAY EDWARD COLLEGE, A BODY OF WORK SHE DISCOVERED, PUBLISHED IN ANTIQUES MAGAZINE.
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