San Francisco

The Halpert Collection

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

The Halpert Collection was gradually put together in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and though some significant tendencies are absent, it is a large and fairly inclusive representation of American art of that period. There are paintings here which recall the importance of various painters whom one hasn’t even thought about or heard mentioned for years, and it should be an informative experience for the museum-goer of many years standing to assess his own taste against the ravages of time and the caprices of the market.

Some of the earliest work in the show seems, from our perspective, to be the soundest: Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Arthur Dove, in particular. Hartley’s Earthwarming, Mexico, is a torridly hot painting with a red mountain rising to a corkscrew cloud from a seething hot plain. Fantasy, Small Point, Maine, John Marin’s watercolor in bright peppermint colors, is from a cooler quarter of the spectrum. There are several O’Keeffe’s, from a small skyline abstraction in watercolor to a large and simple Dark Painting with silvery greys. Dove’s Dawn II is more characteristic of his centrifugal style, but Snow of Ice, is a much more subtle and unusual painting. There is also an early Stuart Davis (c. 1917), an abstraction in plum greys, with delicate paint quality, which contrasts with work of his more usual style—there are, of course, several of Davis’s brash color and line abstractions, too.

The social conscious realists are present in number if not in force, in this collection. Their work looks like rather dated political cartoons. Ben Shahn, whose drawing is sensitive and stylized, seems to us to have survived better than most of the artists of that kidney. Our slice of life preoccupations of the ’30s did not, alas, turn out any Hogarths or Daumiers.

Painting has finally come to grips with color experiment in our own immediate period, and with our new habit of seeing, much of this painting seems tonal and grey, though this is not part of our recollection, and is surprising on recognition. There are happy exceptions to this generalization: Abraham Rattner’s Crucifixion is a glittering texture of gem-like colors. Jacob Lawrence’s They Educate Their Children, is a picture of a Negro father and son at the piano in this artist’s flat bold colors and jagged forms. The small poetic paintings of Morris Graves and Mark Tobey seem as fresh as today. Graves’ Snowflower with black petals, and Tobey’s Rush Lights, are both in minor key, and both are the work of serenely independent artists who managed to survive, and even become a force in an often bruising period, and are still part of today’s scene.

Knute Stiles