The Local Art Scene: American Vanguards at the Neuberger

An important period in the development of American Modernism is the focus of the new show at the Neuberger Museum, “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning and Their Circle, 1927-1942”. It covers the years just before the appearance of Abstract Impressionism.

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Published February 13, 2012 3:51 PM
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artthumbAn important period in the development of American Modernism is the focus of the new show at the Neuberger Museum, “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning and Their Circle, 1927-1942”. It covers the years just before the appearance of Abstract Impressionism.

 

By Arthur Stampleman

 

art1An important period in the development of American Modernism is the focus of the new show at the Neuberger Museum, “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning and Their Circle, 1927-1942”. It covers the years just before the appearance of Abstract Impressionism.

Art historians often focus on groups of artists that have worked in the same period so they can see how the artists influenced one another and to get better insights on their work – the artists of the Renaissance in Italy, the early modernism of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, and the New York School of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko to name a few. The Neuberger show focuses on a group active from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, when many of the stars of American Modernism were developing their identities and new conceptions of what a painting or sculpture could be.

 

art2“American Vanguards” looks at a group of artists linked by friendship and common aspirations. They were closely associated with John Graham, and many were students of the Czech Cubist Jan Matulka at the Art Students League and contributed to the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression.

 

In addition to the four artists listed in the exhibit title, the show features works by Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem deKooning, David Smith, including nine of his sculptures, and his wife Dorothy Dehner, Adolph Gottlieb, David Burliuk, Edgar Levy, Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, Alexander Calder, and Matulka. The 60 works on display come from private collections and museums across the country.

 

Who was Graham? Born Ivan Dabrowsky in Russia 1887, he loved art, trained as a lawyer, and served in the czar’s army. He escaped the revolution and in 1920 came to the United States, where he became a serious, full-time painter. He met Gorky (from Armenia) and Davis and the three were together so often they became known as the “Three Musketeers”. The young Dutchman de Kooning joined the trio not long after arriving in New York, calling them “the smartest guys on the scene”.

 

The featured four were drawn together by their common commitment to modernism, their hunger for the information on European Modernism that Graham, who traveled frequently to Europe, could provide, and their eagerness to exchange ideas. Despite Graham’s close links with so many key figures during the seminal years of American Abstraction, little attention has been paid to these important relationships until this exhibit. It was Graham who showed David Smith magazine photos of welded sculptures by Pablo Picasso and Joan Gonzalez, prompting Smith to move in that direction.

 

art3The exhibit is organized largely chronologically. It starts with portraits of the key players, either by members of the group, or by others, such as Calder’s wire portrait of Graham. An unusual etching shows the faces of six artists, each face etched by a different artist. The show ends with works related to a gallery exhibit Graham organized in 1942. The story ends then because Graham went off in other directions.

 

Each gallery has a mix of artists. This allows viewers to see the group’s common themes, the artists’ differences, and how they may have influenced one other. Abstraction was always present, often with biomorphic forms, but there was no common degree of abstraction. Most works are meant to be representational, but many do not. Placement of the work in the gallery space lets viewers see the strong colors shared by Davis and Graham, and compare how Gottlieb and Graham approach “pictographs”, the compartmentalized arrangement of invented forms in one group of paintings. The response one gets from a highly abstract Gorky with interacting lines and forms is reinforced by the Smith sculptures nearby.

 

Several special events involving one or more of the show’s curators are planned in connection with the exhibit – a panel discussion March 4 at 2 p.m., and a lunch and tour April 20 at 12 p.m.

 

This unique and exciting show is on view in Purchase until April 29. It then travels to Andover, Massachusetts and Fort Worth, Texas.
The Neuberger Museum of Art is located on the campus of Purchase College. Museum hours are 12-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For information, call 251-6100 or visit neuberger.org.

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