“At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Henrietta Shore, Trail of Life (c. 1923), oil on canvas, 30 1/8 × 28″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2022.13
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What a difference a century makes. That’s the upshot of “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism,” an exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art culled from its own holdings. In-house ventures can sometimes come off as so much house-cleaning, an opportunity to air out the storage racks and take stock of inventory. Which is, in fact, what Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has done. But by adding select loans from other institutions and private collections, she’s put together a show that has its own gestalt. Though the fervor of artistic innovation has a limited shelf life, the work on display continues to radiate a klutzy, almost childlike audacity. There’s a naivete at the heart of “At the Dawn of a New Age,” and it is winning.

Maybe relevant as well. Taking into account the lead time for museum shows, Haskell had to know her overview of the stateside response to European Modernism would overlap with the latest iteration of The Whitney Biennial. The latter is, of course, the always anticipated (and invariably vilified) overview of American art that attempts to locate the pulse of the current art scene. The Biennial’s track has been spotty; reading the tea leaves of contemporary culture always is. Still, you have to wonder: How many of the artists in the 2022 Biennial will make the cut of the 2122 model of “At the Dawn of a New Age?”

The vagaries of history are, of course, substantial. Both the production and consumption of art are radically different now than they were in 1913—that would be the year of the Armory Show in New York City, the signal event that introduced Americans to modern painting and sculpture. The dribs-and-drabs by which the innovations of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism reached audiences back in the day seems a veritable trickle from our vantage point. Artists out to create a distinctively 20th-century vision were primed for change, but often halting on the uptake. Still, who’s to say that knowledge slowly accumulated isn’t more deeply absorbed than that gathered from a world in which (to paraphrase the title of a recent film) everything everywhere happens all at once?

As with most cultural endeavors of a recent vintage, “At the Dawn of a New Age” seeks to expand the canon by featuring work by artists who have been overlooked and undervalued. Haskell has located more than a handful of figures whose inclusion will warm the cockles of a social justice warrior’s heart. But there are other matters of redress afoot. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the museum in 1930, the overriding emphasis was on realism. Though more outre strains of art were acknowledged, they weren’t necessarily embraced. Haskell notes that it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Whitney began to backtrack and acquire non-representational art that its founders had passed on.

“At the Dawn of a New Age” sets out to highlight “the capacity of abstraction to reflect individual responses to the . . . groundbreaking spirit of the age.” Haskell places a premium on a cultural optimism she attributes to progressive political campaigns and, especially, advances in technology: “nowhere else were cities so illuminated, manufacturing processes so efficient, or new forms of communication and transportation so pervasive.” Though the promises of the machine age had been tested by the carnage of World War I, artists continued to take inspiration from the streamlined forms and regulated rhythms found in industry. You can see them at play in Stuart Davis’s Egg Beater No.1 (1927), as well as in the rigorously applied geometries and lustrous patina of Painting (c. 1921-22), a still-life by Patrick Henry Bruce.

Pamela Colman Smith, The Wave (1903), watercolor, brush and ink, and graphite pencil on paper, 10 1/4 × 17 3/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Sidney N. Heller 60.42
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The hiccup is that Davis and Bruce are pretty much the only artists who fit comfortably within Haskell’s thesis. If anything, the true basis of the art featured in “At the Dawn of a New Age” runs contrary to the machine-tooled advances of modern life. It’s not technology that’s the impetus, it’s the natural world. In piece after piece, we see the human form or, as is more often the case, the landscape serve as armatures on which matters of pictorial or sculptural form are explored.

Spiritualism, as well: nature long having served as a wellspring for those wanting to embody otherworldly longings. At the entry to the exhibition viewers encounter four paintings that are blatantly mystical in character. In them, Marsden Hartley toys with the astrological, Agnes Pelton immerses herself within a realm of fairies, Oscar Bluemner locates the Big Bang in New Jersey, and Georgia O’Keefe gleans the meditative in the microcosmic. The pieces are emblematic of a new age, all right, but not the one Haskell had in mind.

Any exhibition that includes at its center a deck of tarot cards has the future in its sights, but not necessarily futurism. The cards were commissioned in 1909 by A.E. Waite, the leader of the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn. Under his supervision, illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith delineated a full seventy-eight images for the tarot. The resulting array of symbols–charming amalgams of brittle medievalisms given a nouveau twist–aren’t the only thing by Smith on view. There’s also The Wave (c. 1903), a sinuous array of spirits rendered in watercolor, and not the only time we see the female form employed as a conduit for the transcendental. Others that did so include Arthur B. Davies, Adele Watson, Marguerite Zorach, Carl Newman and Richmond Barthé, whose African Dancer (1933), a haunting effigy rendered in plaster, is among the standout-out pieces in “At The Dawn of a New Age.”

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Congolais (1931), cherry, 16 13/16 × 7 7/8 × 9 1/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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Sculpture is in short supply, but what there is on display is strong. Along with the Barthé, there is Congolais (1931) a portrait carved from cherry wood by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an associate of W.E.B. DuBois and a figure who achieved a measure of notoriety in Europe. Gaston Lachaise, a sculptor best known for his balletic depictions of monumental women, is represented by the lilting bronze Dolphin Fountain (1924). Contorting themselves nearby are two Standing Female Figures (both c. 1925-26) by Elie Nadelman, an artist whose morphing of classical precedent and vernacular art looks more eccentric with each passing year. Isamu Noguchi is here as well, albeit fleetingly glimpsed with a gouache-and-graphite study of a hieratic form that is part-biomorph and part-mechanical doodad.

O’Keeffe is exhibited to clarifying effect, if only because the paintings are prime and few in number. If anything, both her strengths (composition & economy of shape) and limitations (color and surface) are put into relief by being in proximity to like-minds such as Pelton, Helen Torr, Loïs Mailou Jones, Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove and two painters previously unknown to me, Henrietta Shore and Edith Clifford Williams.

Shore’s Trail of Life (c. 1923) will keep Freudians busy comparing-and-contrasting its gynecological allusions to those found in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre. As for Two Rhythms (1916) by Williams: its sparsely applied color, carefully choreographed lines and sweeping arcs of space employs Surrealism as a springboard for something more allusive. Let’s hope our erstwhile curator has the moxie to place these two figures more firmly within our purview in future exhibitions. In the meantime, “At the Dawn of a New Age” proves itself a vivifying excursion. Would that all reappraisals of precedent were so gently applied and congenial in nature. 

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

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