New York

Philip Evergood

Philip Evergood (1901–73) was never really a true social realist; rather, he revealed all too clearly the romantic underside of social realism. In Evergood’s case this is not expressed in a secret heroism of ordinary types (as it is in Thomas Hart Benton’s), but in a peculiar, erotic sense of American life. This eroticism makes Evergood almost worth looking at again after all these years. It exists in his eccentric line and his sense of nature, and perhaps most overtly in his treatment of the female. Whether in the obviously social-realistic Turmoil, 1943, or in the allegorical fantasy of Moon Maiden, 1944 (not in this show), the female remains mythically charged, a symbol of creativity. One senses a kind of womb envy in Evergood, certainly an attention to the female as a talismanic figure. That these two works were relatively simultaneous suggests Evergood’s double vision. It seems he felt obliged to fight the good fight and to join the cause of social justice through pictorial commentary, but that his heart was really with his peculiar version of the femme fatale and the “life force.”

Evergood is at his best as an intriguing, almost brilliant draftsman, setting up a contrast of linear shapes that for all its obviousness still works. Apart from this, his work demonstrates the constriction American art was under between the wars. It is as though Evergood was forced to remain small in vision because of his refusal of Modernism—his refusal to experiment formally and his trust in his “natural” talent. For Evergood the world was a large-enough source of artistic vision, yet one of the ambitions of his art is to demonstrate that there is a point of view that can transcend the world without denying it. Today Evergood remains of interest primarily because of his ability to give narrative an allegorical import. But by the same token, he is a bad artist when he too obviously inflates his narrative with “profound” allegorical import or when he attempts to flesh out an allegorical idea by setting it in the American scene.

In the end, Evergood’s art remains interesting largely for archaeological reasons. It is a wonderful relic of a world that many believed should be experienced with the heart rather than the mind. His art has its sophistications, but it is more interested in local color and human character than in its own possibilities as art. Even in its own terms, though, it has certain sentimental failings. Evergood’s vision of the world tends toward stereotypes that avoid being simplistic only because of his sense of humanity’s oddness—though he still doesn’t make it seem as odd as do, for example, George Grosz and Otto Dix, with whom he could be compared. His sense of the American environment as well is more reportorial than analytic. He wants to believe in art, in America, in humanity, but these are all more demanding than he realizes. Evergood’s nostalgic approach to his world makes it difficult to be nostalgic about his art.

Donald Kuspit