"Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936". (Exhibition Notes)

By Kunitz, Daniel | New Criterion, February 2002 | Go to article overview

"Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936". (Exhibition Notes)


Kunitz, Daniel, New Criterion


"Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936," at Hollis Taggert Galleries, New York. November 28, 2001-January 12, 2002

The widespread ignorance of early American modernism is not at all surprising, what with the current fads for Americana and the saturated fats of Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. Still, by forgetting the contributions of Americans, we distort not only our understanding of American art but we also constrain our pleasures, for the American modernists gave us some of our most gratifying paintings. In recent years, Hollis Taggert has not allowed the gallery-going public to forget these artistic forebears, mounting a series of gorgeous, synthesizing historical shows unequaled by other galleries in New York.

Curated by Stacey Epstein, Taggert's Associate Director of Modernism, "Inheriting Cubism" traced the burgeoning styles of modernism, which were touched to varying degrees by Cubism, from their first appearance in this country until the Museum of Modern Art's 1936 exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art"--by which time, as John Cauman points out in his catalogue essay, "Cubism had become an art of the museums?" Despite the presence of a number of outstanding works among the forty paintings, drawings, and watercolors on view, one can hardly escape the judgment that in America modernists comprised a minor school. Minor in the highest sense of the word, but these artists still inherited their styles, rather than originating them. Even the standouts, Max Weber, John Marin, and Alfred Maurer, all of whom created excellent paintings, could not fully transcend the influences of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. The exception, I think one might agree, is Stuart Davis--not one of my favorite painters, but the lone figure among the group to digest his European precursors fully and, in doing so, establish an entirely new, American concomitant to European modernism. While his early President (1917) retains familiar elements of gridded, stained-glass Synthetic Cubism, Davis's Gasoline Tank (1930) and Landscape with Drying Sails (1931-32) assimilate the flatness, facetings, and overlapping planes of Cubism, and introduce a distinctly American sensibility, a predilection for blocky, easily identifiable clements, for signage and the evidence of labor, for discrete planes of strong color and a graphic sense of pictorial space. I suspect that part of what held back many of these artists from more significant stylistic breakthroughs (their aesthetic achievements need no defense) derives from the influence of the "Salon" Cubism of Metzinger, Gleizes, Duchamp, et al. …

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