New York

“Synchromism”

Knoedler Galleries

Knoedler & Co.’s excellent exhibition, “Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting” provides an ordered survey of a most important and long-misunderstood current in twentieth-century painting. Figures who flicker about the periphery of “main events” in most accounts of the epochal developments of the first quarter of the century here receive the share of the spotlight they deserve; how many of us have heard Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald Wright discussed as pickers of crumbs from the tables of the Cubists, the Futurists, Delaunay, and others as well? As William C. Agee’s model catalog text makes clear, that artists may be catholic in their interests and inspirations does not, ipso facto, make their work eclectic and derivative. It is particularly important to keep this in mind when considering the Synchromists. They sought certain qualities in the color theories of Chevreul and Ogden Rood, and in their application to the works of the Impressionists, and post-Impressionists, which would lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of color experience, and eventually led to conceiving of pictorial form derived from color relationships rather than conversely. In Mr. Agee’s chronicle of the movement and the figures connected with it over the years, the routes through which the most advanced aspects of color theory entered the mainstream of avant-garde painting in America, have at last been made clear.

The exhibition proper presents works by those figures, like Russell, Wright, Frost, and Bruce, whom one thinks of as central to Synchromism, and includes as well related works by Kupka (whose early abstract works are now known to be seminal for more than one line of twentieth century abstraction) and Gleizes. Among many surprises is a 1917 T.H. Benton Constructivist Stilt Life: Synchromist Color (a rare survivor of a general destruction of his works carried out by the artist in 1919), an extraordinary two-sided canvas by James Henry Daugherty from the mid-twenties having a remarkable Synchromist composition on the recto, and a strange mural decoration of “Moses” on the verso. The connections of such as Arthur B. Davies, Joseph Stella, and Morton L. Schamberg to the general drift of color abstraction are also brought out in prime examples of these artists, who present such complex problems of artistic identity in their oeuvres. The difficult problem of the importation and spread of abstract painting to America in the teens and twenties moves a step further toward resolution with the sensitive presentation of this varied material. The central role played by a number of American artists abroad in the development of the artistic possibilities of color theory and geometric abstraction here received a clear and thorough exposition.

–– Dennis Adrian