The Evolutionary Curve - American Art in the 20th Century

Article excerpt

AMERICA is the latest subject in the Royal Academy's ambitious series of exhibitions in which modem art is being surveyed country by country. Germany, Britain and Italy have already been treated in this magazine by this writer.

Two hundred and fifty works by sixty artists have been chosen by the Academy's dominant exhibitions organizer, Norman Rosenthal, in conjunction with Christos Joachimides of the Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft, Berlin, where they have already been shown.

This is one of those blockbuster exhibitions that I deplore, which result in mental fatigue and sore feet. This time there is also a post-1970s selection some three miles distant at the Saatchi Gallery in St. John's Wood. However, big displays attract sponsors: this time Merrill Lynch, American Airlines and The Daily Telegraph. Even in times of recession corporations crave the kudos of cultural connections.

The exhibition advertises itself as 'a monumental survey'. It is no such thing. It is the highly subjective, opinionated choice primarily, one suspects, of Mr. Rosenthal: a selection one critic has described as 'a calculated act of presumption'. It must have been extremely difficult to decide which artists to put in and which to leave out from the teeming variety available. It is the omissions that have caused hostility.

Anyone lucky enough to have visited the many art museums that exist all over America cannot fail to be impressed not only by the quantity but the quality of the works displayed. Well before the turn of the century Americans were quick to accept avant-garde art and purchased it with an enthusiasm and courage sadly lacking among the British. And generous US tax deductions notwithstanding, American collectors must surely be the most handsome benefactors anywhere.

The first Impressionist painting bought in England, I believe, was a Renoir purchased by Mrs. Samuel Courtauld in 1922. By the 1890s Mrs. Potter Palmer already owned so many paintings by Monet she made a frieze of them round the ballroom of her huge Chicago mansion.

Gertrude Stein and her brothers Leo and Michael went to live in Paris in 1905 and began buying art. They bought from Picasso when he was only twenty-four and eventually owned over one hundred of his works, not to mention some seventy by Matisse among other artists.

In New York Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer, opened his art gallery, the 291 on Fifth Avenue. He introduced into America the works of Matisse, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Brancusi, Severini. In 1911 he gave Picasso his first ever one-man show. But the catalyst we are most concerned with here is Peggy Guggenheim. Almost alone she was largely responsible for transferring the most exciting art arena in the Western world from Paris to New York.

She was the feisty, impetuous, generous daughter of one of the seven immensely rich Guggenheim brothers. In pre-1939 days she cut a swathe across Europe, collecting husbands and lovers and running her gallery in London on the way. She flew into New York in July, 1941 and the following year opened ~Art of this Century, her gallery on Madison Avenue. With her extraordinary flair for recognizing talent she launched the careers of Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Adolph Gottlieb, Clifford Still and determinedly set about establishing Jackson Pollock as the greatest American painter. Many believe that he is that still.

Although all evidence of the influence of such giants as Picasso and Matisse has been expurgated from the Academy exhibition, no country has benefited more from the infusion of Europeans than America. No figurative painter has been included; no member of The Eight or the historically important Ashcan Group except Edward Hopper -- whose paintings of the 1920s and 1930s reveal the actuality around them. There is not a murmur of the pace and stress of American city life; of urban violence or racial tensions. So nothing of George Bellows, William Glackens, John Sloan, Robert Henri, nor yet Maurice Prendergast, Sargent, or the witty, sophisticated Elie Nadelman. …