New York

“Pioneers Of American Abstraction”

Andrew Crispo Gallery

“Pioneers of American Abstraction” is not historically representative; only a few of the nine painters included seem to have pioneered anything which could be called both abstract and American. There are also several major exclusions. The exhibition consists of 150-odd paintings, watercolors, and collages by Oscar Bluemner, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber. Despite the fact that the premise posited in its title is not borne out, this exhibition does provide a number of interesting if not unfamiliar insights. The most engrossing of these concern the work of Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Stuart Davis, who are the most important artists in the show and understandably represented by the strongest work.

Dove and O’Keeffe exchange style and imagery throughout the exhibition. At certain points they are almost identical, as in the dark concentric rectangles in his Holbrooks Bridge to the Northwest and her Fifty Ninth Street Studio, or the undulating lines of his Sea Gull Motif and her Abstraction. Both artists seemed to have had a similarly mystical approach to nature, using it as a source of forms and rhythms which were potentially abstract because of their singleness and universality. And both veered toward and away from this potential abstraction. Dove never abandoned it as totally as O’Keeffe, whose Red Barn—Wisconsin, July is as explicitly representational as the Sheeler hanging near it. But the most important difference between these two artists and the basis for Dove’s greater abstraction is not so much in their shifts in imagery as in their ultimately different styles. O’Keeffe’s four watercolors from 1916 are among the earliest, most abstract works in the exhibition (Dove, who did abstract work in 1910 and 1911, is unfortunately represented by work dating from 1926). It is disappointing and revealing that these watercolors are better than any of O’Keeffe’s oil paintings in the exhibition (with only three or four exceptions). One has the feeling that O’Keeffe often had more talent than discipline or attention and that her paintings got more and more complicated as she worked on them, shading the color, making everything exact and tight. There is the suspicion that she finished her paintings by adding little flourishes and curlicues around the edges of initially simple shapes, that she was continually thwarted by her own facility. This explains why her watercolors, results of a single gesture, are much more convincing and moving than her oils. On this particular occasion, Dove’s oils are better than his watercolors. Uninterested in the exact edges of his shapes, Dove seems to have built up single forms, putting the paint on in dense layers of strokes. We are finally most aware of his focus on the act of painting and the kind of focus the blunt intensity of his shapes and surfaces demands of us. By establishing a style and plasticity which are assertive and natural in their rightness, Dove diminished the specific references to nature. At her best, O’Keeffe also does this, but far too often, she paints in a manner which renders both the painting and its natural subject matter brittle and artificial.

Unlike Dove and O’Keeffe, whose work contains few references to anything European, Davis worked from and ultimately through European influences. He seems to have taken various aspects of Cubist collage from the still life and applied them to the urban landscape. Specifically, the words and letters are returned to signs, buildings, street corners, or merely scrawled across the sky. The buildings themselves are flattened and simplified, outlined like the letters. Davis fragmented form into flat, opaque shapes; their dynamism comes mostly from his loud jazzy color, which also distinguishes him from much European Cubism. As the letters and shapes disengage from each other and from representation, their bluntness and undiluted color make the paintings look like cartoon versions of their European influences. Davis’ maturity came later than O’Keeffe’s and Dove’s. His work reveals the only consistent, uninterrupted development toward abstraction. Its strength and exuberance is the high point of the exhibition.

The remaining work seems involved with the use or misuse of Cubism and is consequently quite European or quite representational in appearance. Weber’s paintings are competently Cubist; his ambitious, somber oils become relatively “American” only as their subject matter becomes more apparent and their abstraction consequently lessens. This is evidenced in paintings fittingly titled Grand Central Terminal and New York. Stella also used European means, in his case Futurist, to depict the dynamism of the city. However, one of the surprises of the exhibition is a group of small collages which Stella began in 1919, often using leaves and rough-textured paper. They are as amazing for their extreme simplicity as for their total abstraction, and are the only work in the show which looks contemporary. They could have been made yesterday. But if that were the case, they would also be considered somewhat contrived and elegant. Their interest is thus primarily historical; the simplicity is a little too complete and there is not much to look at once the early date has been noted. An even more impressive surprise are three very small oils by John Marin (from 1916) which are his most interesting work in the exhibition. These slightly naturalistic scenes of Weehawken, done in loose, rapid strokes of thick rich colors, are more abstract than his larger watercolors and oils of New York and the Maine coast. The smaller works by O’Keeffe, Stella, and Marin indicate that they were quite able to achieve total abstraction, but lacked a necessary confidence and support to pursue it to its conclusion in work of greater scale and ambition.

The inclusion of Demuth, Sheeler, and Bluemner is peculiar since their involvement with abstraction, at least as revealed in this exhibition, is extremely tenuous. Equally peculiar is the exclusion of Alfred Steiglitz, Alfred Maurer, and Marsden Hartley, who made considerable contributions to the development of abstraction in America. Their absence makes the premise of the exhibition seem hollow and pretentious, despite the impressive museum loans and lavish catalogue, since no representation of the beginnings of American abstraction is complete without them.

Roberta Smith