American art for the ages

The emotionally wrought, compellingly rendered images are every bit as much a document of the first four decades of 20th century America as any sociologist’s objective pen or historian’s clinical lens.

The more than 50 masterpieces that comprise In the City: Urban Visions 1900-1940 trace the dramatic cultural and political changes that marked this turbulent period in American history, including World War I, the prosperity of the 1920s, and the Great Depression. But for local art lovers, the best news of all is that these gems — selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection — are now on exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum, the first stage in a four-part collaboration with the Whitney to take place over the next three years, thanks to almost two years of negotiations by AAM Executive Director Pamela Myers.

In the City documents the changing landscape of urban America — from rickety Bowery bars to sleek new skyscrapers — using New York City as an iconic base. The exhibition also explores the people who inhabited those landscapes, from the upper classes enjoying a night on the town to the downtrodden waiting on unemployment lines.

Many of America’s greatest artists — Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Everett Shinn, Reginald Marsh, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, Franz Kline and Glenn Coleman among them — are represented here. And were it not for a woman with Asheville connections, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (the niece of Biltmore Estate owner George Washington Vanderbilt), the works of these and many more American artists might never have been shown anywhere.

As Myers puts it, Whitney was “a woman who knew her own mind and followed her own path.” Born into almost unimaginable privilege, Vanderbilt nevertheless championed struggling American artists at a time when “American” art was viewed with snobbish glances down the nose by art critics, gallery owners and collectors.

“It’s ironic, when you think about the snobbery against American Art,” observes exhibit curator Beth Venn, “because Vanderbilt herself was of great wealth, to say the least, and yet she rallied against those people in New York who felt that American art wasn’t worthy. She put out ads in newspapers and art magazines and said, ‘Let’s support our artists. You should buy American art for your homes.'”

But her plea fell chiefly on deaf ears. Undaunted, Whitney eventually established the Whitney Museum of American Art — because no other venue even wanted the works she had so lovingly cultivated. Whitney offered her entire collection to the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1920s — and was summarily turned down. “She never intended to open her own museum,” Venn points out, “but she really had no choice.” Seven hundred works by American artists from Whitney’s personal collection formed the core of the original Whitney Museum.

Whitney’s hard-fought patronage eventually paid off. Artists like Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis and Reginald Marsh had their first shows at the Whitney, and these three, among others, later donated most or all of their artistic estates to the museum. Ironically, almost none of the artists represented in In the City were considered “great” in their time; many did not gain any real recognition until well into the 1950s and ’60s.

In the City is arranged in loosely chronological order, beginning in the very first years of the century with the works of the so-called Ashcan School of painters (or “the Eight”) who, as Venn explains, “started to turn away from a Victorian idealism, where people and places looked beautiful, to depicting sort of commonplace life in the city — and life wasn’t that great in the city at that time, quite frankly.”

The second gallery spotlights the amusements and pastimes of a newly prosperous, 1920s America. The third room displays grim, Depression-era scenes of unemployment lines and political unrest — most strikingly, Isaac Soyer’s “Employment Agency,” Edward Laning’s “Unlawful Assembly” and Glenn Coleman’s “Election Night Bonfire.” The fourth gallery looks ahead to a world more familiar to us in subsequent decades, charting both the city’s changing physical environment and the move away from what had been, up till then, mostly realist art. Franz Kline’s “New York Tenements” (pictured on the cover) — a detailed study of the off-kilter rooftops, backdoors and porches of one small slice of the city — is a fascinating precursor of his shift into abstract expressionism; Louis Guglielmi’s stark, surrealist-inspired “Terror in Brooklyn” and the bold graphics and stylized figures of Jacob Lawrence’s “Tombstones” also herald fundamental aesthetic change.

At the same time, the exhibit traces the metamorphosis of several individual artists’ styles, particularly Edward Hopper: Six very different Hopper works are featured, including “Soir Bleu” (1914), a startling depiction — influenced by the time Hopper spent in France — of a group of Parisians drinking at an outdoor cafe. There’s a vaguely sinister feel to the piece, reinforced by the solemn clown smoking a cigarette near the composition’s center. The work’s flatness, both in style and tone, creates a kind of “dead” sensation that belies its brilliant blue background. One of Hopper’s favorite pieces, “Soir Bleu” was soundly trounced by critics at its first New York showing in 1915; he never exhibited it again before donating it to the Whitney. That same flatness also looks ahead to Hopper’s more famous later work — such as the haunted landscape of “Apartment Houses, Harlem River” (1930), a vaguely eerie study, done in muted blues, greens and grays, of a row of almost identical apartment buildings along the river. The muted lights that appear in a few windows are the only evidence of human life.

Perhaps the most striking motif that runs rampant through In the City is the elevated railway. You can almost chart the changing times by the way the “el” is depicted.

Everett Shinn’s “Under the Elevated” (believed to be circa 1912) is a prime example of the Ashcan School approach to art. The work depicts a gloomy winter street scene: Dark, run-down shops (like the Smoke & Chew) and flophouses (Rover’s Hotel) provide a backdrop for a dark mass of almost faceless people, painted mostly in shades of black, huddled in one corner. Muted street lamps provide the only light, and the cold is almost palpable.

John Sloan’s “Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street” (1928) presents a vastly different picture, in keeping with the spirit of the time. Instead of darkness, we’re met with the blazing lights of the el at the top of the canvas. Below, brightly lit shops replace the gloomy buildings of “Under the Elevated,” and the raucous Jazz Age sensibility is captured in groups of flappers and elegantly dressed men and women cavorting on the street.

Reginald Marsh’s “Why Not Use the ‘L'” (1930) captures the miserable tone of life after the stock-market crash of 1929, but with wry humor and irony. Beneath a sign advertising the joys of riding the “open-air elevated” sit three figures — dead-tired, numb and desperate — clearly not enjoying the ride. A newspaper casually tossed on the floor screams the headline, “Does the sex urge explain Judge Crater’s strange disappearance?”

And Francis Criss’ “Sixth Avenue El” (1937) also anticipates the move toward abstraction. Here, both the el and the city beneath it dissolve in a geometric hodgepodge of flat shapes, marked by deeply textured paint in plain primary and secondary colors.

Many of these artists focused on leisure activities in the ’20s — from popular entertainment like boxing and the circus to the more reclusive pleasures of lounging in one’s room.

Mabel Dwight’s “Aquarium” and “The Clinch, Movie Theatre” (both 1928) depict leisure pursuits available to the masses. Quiet studies of women in repose, such as Thomas Dewings’ formal, portrait-like “Lady in a Green Dress” and Edward Hopper’s “Summer Interior” — a beautiful work done in acid greens and rusts, featuring a partially nude woman lounging on the floor of her simple but comfortably appointed room — capture the sedentary pastimes of the upper classes.

By the 1930s, though, even leisure activities are tinged with hints of seediness and desperation that, again, reflect the times. Reginald Marsh — who was famous for going out into the streets of New York and becoming a participant in the scenes he painted (“He was not a dispassionate observer,” says Venn) — gives us “Ten Cents a Dance” (1933) and “Minsky’s Chorus” (1935). “Ten Cents” is a voluptuous group portrait: Women dressed in form-fitting, jewel-toned dresses stare with fixed smirks at an invisible audience; a whiff of something sexual permeates the piece. “The work has this funny ambiance,” Venn notes. “Are they really dancers, or are they something else? They’re paid to do something, but is it to dance?”

“Minsky’s Chorus” is a lush, sensual, slightly sullied study of burlesque dancers. A gaggle of scantily clad women fill a stage — their seductive gyrations almost tangible. The scene is awash in slightly faded golds, punctuated by the bright-red garters and feather headpieces of the dancers. Two leering men lounge in one corner, while musicians in the pit fill the foreground.

“‘Minsky’s Chorus’ might be Marsh’s sort of edgy takeoff on Degas,” says Venn. “It’s the same sort of composition you’ll often see [in Degas’ work] — the musicians in the orchestra pit in the foreground, then the very proper ballerinas onstage. And it’s like Marsh was poking fun at that, or kind of defiantly saying, ‘This is America, and this is our version.'”

Our version, indeed. As Venn points out, American art only really came to be recognized with the advent of abstract expressionism and pop art. “Most people know who Jackson Pollock is,” she says; “they know who de Kooning is, and then they certainly know who Warhol is. And from that period on, people know American art. But what’s great about this show is, with the exception of an occasional Hopper or Marsh, most people don’t know anything about this period in American art.”

There’s something else at work here, too, Venn concludes: “You view these works, and you not only see that, for example, Reginald Marsh had a certain style, but that style brings you back to the 1930s and tells a lot about that particular moment in America. It’s a history lesson.”

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