San Francisco

“Synchronism and Related American Color Painting”

San Francisco Museum of Art

The summer season at the San Francisco Museum of Art was, for the most part, given over to a slow procession of limited-itinerary touring exhibitions originating elsewhere. An exhibition entitled “Synchronism and Related American Color Painting,” currently circulated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and seen here as a corridor show during June and July, was an historical footnote, as it were, isolating for scrutiny a minuscule and fleeting ripple in the main wave of Cubist influence on early 20th-century American painting.

William C. Agee’s informative and well-illustrated catalog for a somewhat more extensive survey of the same particularized field, organized by M. Knoedler & Co. of New York and held at Knoedler’s 57th Street showrooms in 1965, was made available as a most welcome annotative supplement to this recently circulating smaller display of Synchromist paintings, most if not all of which had been in the Knoedler show. Methodical scholarship and disciplined selection were admirably applied to keeping this exhibition rigorously within its proper scope; indeed, the combined effect of Mr. Agee’s learned commentary, the somewhat restrictive topic, the essentially minor and patently dated character of even the best of so-called Synchromist painting, and its rather subsidiary, if not altogether trivial, role in the currents of early 20th-century American art, all conspired to endow this exhibition with an atmosphere highly suggestive of the by-product of a well-organized but somewhat pedantic and uninspiring academic research project.

Quite appropriately, the bulk of the exhibition’s inventory consisted of canvases executed between 1910 and 1920 by the two American painters, Morgan Russell (1886–1953) and Stanton Macdonald-Wright (b. 1890). Both of these men, then in the formative period of their careers, spent much of that decade painting and studying in Paris, where, in 1913, they formed a coalition in connection with their joint exhibition at the famous Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, as the original, self-proclaimed “Synchromists,” issuing a manifesto in which the term “Synchromism” was applied to certain methodical procedures with respect to color-organization, presumably original to their work.

In the early decades of this century, many persons involved in art, overwhelmed by the dramatic and visibly gargantuan acceleration of technological progress in the world around them, sought support in infusing an inevitably naive, oversimplistic, and often defensively dogmatic scientism into art theory; cults and cranks with a plethora of pseudoscientific jargon purporting to establish “objective” esthetic criteria for art in measurable and formulable properties of compositional proportion, schematization of color, and the like, proliferated, and the two young Synthromists were not atypical of these frenetic times in claiming for their methods not only the authority of science, but the sanctions of Evolution, as well through certain allegedly discernible trends in the history of painting techniques.

Clearly the principal influence and immediate point of departure for the Synchromist styles of Russell and Macdonald-Wright was Delaunay’s “Simultaneisme,” and the young Synchromists gave the impression of regarding Delaunay’s procedures as the penultimate phase in an historical progression of which Synchromism was the ultimate and definitive climax. The controversy and publicity attendant upon the 1913 Synchromist exhibition and manifesto soon precipitated around the two artists the interest and occasional alliance of a dozen or so sympathetic students and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly among their young compatriots. Nonetheless, there was never an adequately large group of avowed Synchromists, sufficiently united in opinion and practice for long enough to merit designating this ephemeral wave of sympathy and uncoordinated, spasmodic influence as a “movement.”

It was obviously from a carefully screened selection of paintings executed by various participants in such a small and fickle following as there was (embracing at various times Thomas Hart Benton, Patrick Henry Bruce, James Daugherty, Andrew Dasburg and Joseph Stella)—and representing only periods when each of the artists included was most immediately under the enchantment of specifically Synchromist ideas as propounded by Russell and Macdonald-Wright—that the balance of the exhibition’s inventory was drawn. Scattered here and there, notably among the works of Macdonald-Wright and Dasburg, were a few gorgeous canvases, evoking through painterly magic, sapphire illusions of soft, iridescent light radiating suffusively from deep within the picture—space and defracted into rainbow spectra of rich luminescent colors through crystalline labyrinths of translucent Cubist planes and polygons. But these were exceptions. While it is true that a few first rate artists have sometimes talked nonsense (or subscribed to other people’s nonsense) in attempting to rationalize (after the fact) their artistic procedures, the stamp of mediocrity on most Synchromist painting derives from its having been conceived too much after the fact of Synchromist theoretical conceits. Hence, this show confronted the stroller in the museum with some fairly drab corridor stretches of dull formula paintings—exercises in the schematization of color, applied sometimes to rather mechanically plotted abstract Cubist configurations, and sometimes to stylized figurative motifs in the decorative conventions of Art Nouveau.

As already suggested, for most of the artists represented in the exhibition who survived beyond 1925, Synchromism was but a transient and often consciously tentative and experimental detour, while to a succeeding generation of artists capable of interacting with the technological environment (either to incorporate it or to reject it or differentiatively to do both) from the vantage point of a more acclimated sophistication, the absurdities and elaborately disguised non sequiturs involved in attempting to wrest an “objective Esthetic” from the facts and classifications of Optical Physics were readily transparent, and Synchromism in theory and practice was so-on relegated to the limbo of historical curiosa. In his enthusiasm for rummaging in this limbo Mr. Agee would have us believe that Synchromism was importantly prototypal of Op Art and other aspects of recent colorism. This thesis alone in his otherwise scholarly catalog essay seems inadequately supported and it is doubtful if it would be sustained by closer investigation.

Palmer D. French