New York

Max Weber: The Years 1906–1916

Bernard Danenberg Galleries

Max Weber’s early work—the show of it at the Danenberg Galleries preceded that of Archipenko—is even more eclectic; and partly for this reason it is hard to evaluate. Taken singly, most of the paintings in it are adequately good, some of them perhaps quite good; but their wild variations in style are of course characteristic of an artist who has not found himself; and even when artists of this kind do good work there are valid reasons for not taking it very seriously. In the end, the principal reasons for taking it seriously are reasons of cultural history and sociology—the problems of being an artist in America, the situation of the modernist movement in America, and so on—rather than reasons of artistic interest strictly speaking.

Weber began as an American Fauve, and during the period covered by this show (it extends to 1916) he never did give up a kind of Fauvist interpretation of early Cézanne. What Weber saw in Cézanne was not the analysis of form, and if he sometimes adopted the fluid, broken strokes and the thin, broken contours of Cézanne’s later work it was not because he saw those strokes as planes building a reasoned structure—he saw them as vehicles of emotion, or at least of energy. Incidentally, I have the feeling that Cézanne reached Weber at second hand, by way of Derain, Matisse and Picasso, who with Matisse was naturally the principal factor in shaping Weber’s style. More often than not the approaches 79 of Analytic Cubism are also filtered through a screen of emotion, and it is not surprising that the results are closer to Futurism than to Cubism! Finally, there is a group of paintings which are clearly derived from Matisse (this is most evident in Decoration with Yellow Vase), but with the flatness so heavily accentuated, the contours so greatly schematized and the schemas so very geometric that something rather different results.

Different in aspect and in sensibility, but not in pictorial concept. The ideas are always the ideas of other, and better, painters—so much better, that putting Weber beside Picasso and Matisse is like pitting a goldfish against a shark. And so one comes back to questions that exceed the scope of artistic quality: since one is reluctant to think that Weber was that bad, one looks for the explanation of his mediocrity in factors outside him—that is, in his ambience or culture. Thus for the n-th time one is led to reflect on how extraordinarily undeveloped was the pictorial intelligence of even the best American modernists in the early years of this century. But, in thinking this, one has to think also that they were so badly equipped to understand French modernism not only because of the limitations of their ambient culture, but because of the deficiencies to be found also in the more particular sphere of the American painting that preceded them, on which the inability of an artist such as Weber provides a devastating commentary. I wonder, in other words, if the old cliché is not correct after all: it is as though this generation was starting from scratch.

Jerrold Lanes