Monday, 21 May 2018

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

There is a certain satisfaction on viewing an exhibition devoted to a single theme; in this case, the early 20th-century vision of the United States, an America of tall buildings, huge bridges, grain towers, trains, and silos; an idea that may well be more powerful than the reality.

This Ashmolean show doesn’t fit that vision precisely. Despite the title, the exhibition neither starts chronologically with O’Keefe, nor ends with Hopper, and neither of those artists is typical of the exhibition. I suspect these two names have been inserted to the exhibition title as the most recognised artists in the exhibition. The public likes a recognisable name. 

It’s worth considering why they are not typical, why O’Keefe and Hopper are both somewhat at variance with the main theme of the exhibition. While the show as a whole has quite remarkably almost no recognisable humans in any of the works, both O’Keefe and Hopper move towards the human: O’Keefe because her art, even when abstract,  always appears to be based around the forms of the human body. Her patterns remind the viewer of human forms. Alternatively, she paints a recognisable view, such as the East River from her hotel. 

With Hopper, it’s rather different. Hopper is always trying to tell a story. Hopper’s paintings are never just a landscape, or a building captured; no, there is a story here. Even when humans are absent, Hopper is still telling a story. For example, Dawn in Pennsylvania has a deserted railway station platform and a train just disappearing. So where is this train going? Have we missed it? There is a drama here.

In contrast, where this exhibition excels is in a kind of inhuman purity. Objects and patterns are displayed, whether representational or abstract, as shapes that are satisfying in their own right. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous Paul Strand photograph entitled White Fence. Although the title states New York, the fence could be anywhere. This is just a fence, forming a satisfying pattern.

Similarly, some of the representational images are moving towards the abstract by simply taking a shape – in the case of the picture above, Le Tournesol [Sunflower], by Edward Steichen – and moving it towards pure pattern. The result is one of those rare occasions when the pictures truly interact with each other. Each new image, representational or abstract, is a study in creating satisfying shapes out of something seen. So a lithograph such as American Pattern – Barn, by Benton Spruance, is as the title suggests, a barn that is everywhere yet nowhere; a pattern of America.

In that sense, Hopper and O’Keefe are the odd men out. For me, the show is perfectly summarised in Charles Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn.  It could well be a specific building in a specific place, but the treatment is so reduced the formal shapes – two solid blocks at ninety degrees to each other -  that we observe the pattern, not the specific building. It’s only on closer observation that you notice just a few inconspicuous details that introduce a jarring note that that formal perfection: a broken fence, repairs in the roof. This, you feel, is a vision of America. 

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