New York

The 1930’s

The 1930s is in many respects an admirable and instructive resumé which aids in satisfying a growing curiosity about the coexistent and overlapping adventures of this misrepresented decade. Curator William Agee is to be praised for his rejection of the exclusivist view of a so-called Social Realist domination of the period. He gives equal time to American Surrealism, American Abstraction, and, somewhat more questionably, European expatriate art being produced in America at that moment. To my disappointment, I find that a particularly important area of the thirties has been neglected: I mean the Hollywood Moderne style, the final populist extenuation of the luxuriously oriented Arts Déco of the twenties, perpetuated and bastardized during world depression and, more importantly, by cinema décor. Despite the blatant neglect of this decorative efflorescence, the Whitney show is nonetheless to be commended for the areas it does deal with. The directions marked out dès l’entrée, are regionalist formalism (read thin paint values for formalism, e.g. Hopper and Avery); Gorky’s malerisch adaptations of the Picasso of about 1930–32, Burgoyne Diller’s most compelling retakes of Mondrian, and Man Ray’s A l’Heure de l’Observatoire, Les Amoureux (American only nominally, as the painter at that time continued to play Cecil Beaton to the Court of Surrealism).

Curator Agee’s reviewings of American Surrealist mutations are particularly striking. While the results of automatism are perhaps best known for being subsumed into the practice of Pollock, other “automatics” of the thirties include Calder, Smith, de Kooning, Hofmann, and Tobey, who demonstrate that they too were already producing works of a mature and suggestive cast. Agee points out in helpful picture captions that Matta had come to the United States between 1939–48, Tanguy in 1939, Eugene Berman in 1935, Tchelitchew in 1934––not to mention Leonid, Chagall, Breton and many others of varying Surrealist commitment. The more literal Surrealist practitioners, purveyors of the so-called “hand painted dream photograph,” look rather dated and feeble. Kay Sage, Frederico Castellon, Ivan Albright, Man Ray seem slightly quaint now. Perhaps the most trivial of all is Peter Blume, whose Eternal City of 1934 is once more exhumed from the reserves of the Museum of Modern Art, after we have been for so long spared its ostentatious mediocrity.

The geometric abstractionists seem quite fresh and possess unanticipated strength––what with exemplary work by Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner, Harry Holtzman and Josef Albers, who came to the United States in 1933. A large pedantic Roszak, which for all its formalist derivativeness and overstriving scale, makes for a striking contrast to the open flame kitsch one usually associates with this artist’s name.

Of the Social Realists, it is perhaps instructive to see once more Thomas Hart Benton’s Tintorettesque farmhands, Jack Levine’s Razumovskian String Quartet, John Steuart Curry’s anal pleinairisme, and Joe Jones’s wind-eroded American Farm.

Among the show’s sleepers is Arthur B. Carle’s Abstract Still-Life, Flowers of 1935, which brings coloristic and spatial hesitation almost to the verge of a new style; Elie Nadelman’s papier-mâché circus women, slightly bruised for having been pointed up into carrara for the New York State Theater; a humorously machine-like abstraction by Georgia O’Keeffe (Black, White and Blue, 1930); Augustus Vincent Tack’s art nouveauish lavender foliage; Oscar Bluemner’s Situation in Yellow, a Burchfieldish house gone Cubist; Patrick Henry Bruce’s Forms, 1929–30, and, the sleepiest sleeper of all, John Storr’s Dadaistic triangles in his Abstract I, which is winning and funny at the same time. His Abstract Composition Around Two Voids (1932), seems more relevant today than Jacques Lipchitz’s Cubist harlequins of the teens, from which it derives. This work also shames the suave pretensions of Archipenko, the “just-us-folksiness” of John Flannagan, the viscous mongoloids of Hugo Robus, Zorach’s Polyklitan underdogs, and Lachaise’s voluptuous version of Earthworks called Dans la Nuit. All in all, a meritable survey.

––Robert Pincus-Witten