The unknown Americans

US artists of the interwar years can at last be appreciated in a revealing Oxford exhibition

Michael Prodger

From a European perspective, there is a hole in the middle of the history of 20th-century art: what was going on in America between the wars? We know about Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe and we know Grant Wood’s American Gothic but beyond that? To all intents and purposes, the story of American art seems to start in the 1940s with Abstract Expressionism: Whistler and Sargent don’t count, since they were honorary Europeans.

A large part of the reason is that British galleries contain almost nothing from the period: the Tate’s American collection is a void between Sargent and Pollock. Nor have the interwar Americans received the critical attention of their European peers: in Ernst Gombrich’s canonical Story of Art, the earliest American work mentioned is Jackson Pollock’s One (Number 31) from 1950.

The Royal Academy did something to rectify things in 2017 with its revelatory exhibition America After the Fall, which showed how engaged the artists of the time were with social issues, and now the Ashmolean in Oxford is doing its bit with America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper (until July 22). It is an exhibition that reflects a strand of art that is cool in the sense of detached, focusing on pictures of American cities, factories and agricultural buildings in which human beings are largely absent. This, with the buildings’ machine-like geometrical forms, gives the pictures an uneasy air.

What they also represent is a response to the call for a distinctively American art, most colourfully voiced by the photographer and avant-gardist Alfred Stieglitz, who demanded work that reflected “America without that damned French flavour!” He was only partially successful since the result was paintings in which the spatial experiments of Cubism, especially as practised by the likes of Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger, can clearly be felt.

The pictures also hark back to pre-war Modernism and movements such as Futurism and Vorticism which trumpeted modernity as art’s great hope. However, faced with the reality of modernism, in the form of skyscrapers and large scale industrialisation, American artists were more equivocal. New York’s city canyons, purged of human chaos and narrative, were alienating as well as awe-inspiring while the country’s industrial buildings — grain silos, factories — were places where traditional work-by-hand had been superseded. The structures though, with their clean lines, sharp edges and defined volumes, offered a way for painters to combine near abstraction with realism.

Charles Demuth was one of those who made the most of the new possibilities, his cityscapes such as the curiously and poetically named (William Carlos Williams was his closest friend) Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M. of 1921, are usually delicately coloured to soften their aggressive cropping and compression. Charles Sheeler was another: he took either a low or high viewpoint to give his buildings a skewed perspective and make them all the more looming. Cézanne once said that the painter should “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” and Sheeler clearly defines this dictum in paint.

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her mystical paintings of New Mexico but she first came to prominence in New York, exhibiting in Stieglitz’s 291 gallery and then marrying him. There are none of her flower paintings in the exhibition but comparing East River from the Shelton Hotel of 1928 to her 1930 picture of Ranchos Church, a New Mexico adobe building at Taos, is to see an austere, almost purist vision of the American built environment formed in the metropolis being transported to the back of beyond.

Hopper and O’Keeffe are the big draws, but the real surprise is just how many artists were working in this vein. The exhibition introduces a series of unfamiliar painters such as Rawlston Crawford, Jacob Lawrence and George Ault (whose atmospheric images of empty streets and buildings in the fog or at dusk particularly deserve to be better known) who envisioned America as a series of “arrangements”, alongside the familiar photographic pioneers Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, and Stieglitz himself.

Ironically, the artist who most perfectly sums up the theme was not American at all. Christopher Nevinson was one of the greatest of British First World War artists and, having survived the trenches, he travelled to New York in 1919. His first exhibition of prints was well received, his second less so, leading him to change the name of his major paining of the city, a sweep of highline rail tracks surging up towards the skyscrapers, from New York — an Abstraction to The Soul of the Soulless City. Nevinson does not feature in the exhibition but the artists present learnt from both the excitement and ambivalence of his painting, and its titles.

The furniture maker Thomas Chippendale was born in 1718 and Chippendale300 is a series of exhibitions around the country — from Firle Place in Sussex to Nostell Priory near Wakefield — to mark his tercentenary. Perhaps the most significant of them is Thomas Chippendale: Designer, Maker, Decorator at Harewood House in Yorkshire, home to one of the most significant collections of his work in the country.

In 1767 Edwin Lascelles commissioned Chippendale to furnish the home that had just been built by John Carr of York and Robert Adam. The project, which encompassed not just furniture but curtains, carpets and wallpapers, took 30 years and was completed by Thomas Chippendale Junior following Chippendale senior’s death in 1779. The ensemble is worth seeing because he produced relatively little furniture himself (about 600 pieces can be ascribed to him and his workshop) despite “Chippendale” becoming ubiquitous following the publication of his The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director in 1754 — both Catherine the Great and Louis XVI owned copies. With the Director and its 61 plates, Chippendale did not just incorporate Neoclassical, Chinese and Gothic motifs in a new type of Rococo but became the foremost tastemaker of the Georgian age.

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