“America’s cool modernism” reveals the tensions behind the appearance of perfection. Collecting the works of American artists between the 1920s and 1930s, the exhibition at Ashmolean (University of Oxford’s art and archaeology museum) explores how they were dealing with the comings of modernism.

Buffalo Grain Elevators (c) Ralston Crawford Estate

Text by: Fiammetta Cesana

In a climate of strong tensions and social crises, provoked by the First World War, the time of prohibitionism, and by the Great Depression, modern technologies began to make their way not only by distorting the urban landscape but above all by questioning the value of man in a society governed by machines. Following these cultural changes, the artists began to paint through a “cool” controlled detachment, typical of modernism, removing the human subjects from their works. In fact, the absolute protagonists were the factories, the skyscrapers that started to be built in the big cities, the industrial machineries, the gears… in short, aseptic landscapes and rigid forms where human emotionality was totally marginalised.

Dawn in Pennsylvania (c) Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art

The new artistic currents of cubism and abstract art were very influential, with the main focus on shape and colour. The idea was to give the image of an ordered world, where the “coolness” was given by the removal of the superfluous, by the sharpness of the colours and the well-defined shapes…

Illinois Central (c) Estate of the artist

The simplification of forms is visible, for example, in Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series”, where tenement buildings in Harlem are reduced to simple, geometrical shapes punctuated by bright rectangles. The differently coloured windows evoke, in the artist’s words, “degrees of acclimatisation to one’s new home that individuate one migrant from another.”

Migration 31 (c) 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle - ARS, New York

Brush strokes were also reduced to a minimum to create flattened surfaces, as we can see in Georgia O’Keefee’s stark black and white abstract painting, inspired by her experience of losing consciousness under anaesthetic. What the artists of the time aimed to convey  was actually a kind of anaesthetised world, where emotions left room for pure efficiency. But to what extent does a meticulously organised system lead to collective and individual fulfilment? This seems to be the question hidden behind these “perfect” artworks.

Black Abstraction (c) 2017 ARS New York

Many eliminated the human subject from portraits as well, just showing something that characterises the person, often linked to his/her work. Demuth’s abstract portrait of W.C. Williams, for example, features the number 5, recalling a poem by Williams in which he saw a red truck rushing down New York’s streets.

Figure 5 (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

20s-30s American artists committed themselves in new ways of perceiving and representing reality. Some used to extrapolate everyday objects from their usual context to turn them into abstract elements. They also pictured lights and shadows without showing their sources, in order to enhance the sense of the abstract. This is the case of Paul Strand’s work, where a porch railing casts shadows on a tilted table creating an abstract image by using sharp focus and extreme close-up.

Buffalo Grain Elevators (c) Ralston Crawford Estate

On the other way round, other painters try to represent abstract subjects, like music, in a visual and more concrete sense. E.e. Cummings, for instance, suggested the silhouette of a guitar to make music tangible, not by sound but by colour, texture and form.

Their art attempted to describe a society, in which human limits and weaknesses were increasingly being compensated by the machine’s refinement. Likewise the idea of the modern world, their paintings were precise, geometrical, balanced, giving the viewer a feeling of (fragile) equilibrium.

East River (c) 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

America’s Coll Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until July 22nd
Ashmolean Museum