Art labels and categories are a love-hate thing for me. I use them all the time. Most are an easy shorthand about a style or time period: pop, baroque, impressionist, for example. Like everything in life, the boundaries, overlaps and exceptions of actual art described as such can sometimes confuse more than enlighten.
The term "modernism" is probably the most problematic for me, and I generally try to avoid using it since I have never been completely sure what it means.
"American Modernism From the Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Mark S. Kauffman" at the Tampa Museum of Art doesn't give me any new surety, but it makes the point that many, many ideas were percolating on the canvases of American artists in the early 20th century, label them how you will.
A similar show from this same collection came to the John and Mable Ringling Museum in 2004, so you may have, as I did, deja vu moments. They're good moments, like remeeting a fleeting acquaintance you had forgotten about and realizing you would like to know that person better.
The common thread throughout the show of about 70 paintings (and two bronze sculptures) is the way representational art was changing. Impressionism had already blown apart assumptions about portraying "reality." How we see became as real as what we see, and how a subject was painted became as important as the subject itself. Most of this innovation was happening in Europe, especially Paris, and we need to remember that 100 years ago, communication was much slower and less universal.
So the 1913 Armory Show in New York can be considered a watershed moment for American art. It had about 1,200 works by several hundred American and, more important, European artists. Among the European contingent were a number who had been rocking the Parisian art scene for several years, including Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. It gave Americans, especially New Yorkers, a first broad look at the avant-garde trends that would be gathered under the broad umbrella of modernism. (The show was controversial, of course; President Theodore Roosevelt was reportedly outraged by some of it.)
Most important, it inspired many American artists, as you see in this exhibition, and some of the artists here were also in that Armory show. Guy Pene du Bois was one, and you might wonder why he's included in this show. At the Met (The Old Met) looks like a traditional portrait of a society couple enjoying a night at the opera. Yet there's something off about it. Look at the woman's hand; it seems so unrelaxed. And her face looks full of anxiety. Does that less well-articulated man behind her make her nervous?
Such editorial license is a new thing. So is Charles Burchfield's Clearing After Storm, a moody narrative with no people in sight. And John Marin's Brooklyn Bridge which, like Burchfield's landscape, is representational but embodies urban energy rather than architectural truth.
Influence also comes close to imitation on at least one canvas. The Art Patron of William Gropper's painting has the nose of a Toulouse-Lautrec chorus girl and the vivid colors of van Gogh. (I was going to write "fauvist colors" but that's the label thing again.) Gropper's true colors are not from paint tubes, however. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed social activism has a place in art, believed that art could influence popular opinion and change popular behaviors. Most of his art had a biting commentary that sometimes became caricature.
Reginald Marsh rejected modernism. That he's in this show indicates that the word is used less philosophically and more as a style marker. Still, Marsh is a curious inclusion. He painted and drew in the rich, robust manner of the old masters and filled his paintings with people realistically presented. He was sensitive to social and financial discrimination, but he wasn't the radical that Gropper was. He was fascinated mostly by the group dynamics and energy of a crowd as a compositional element.
Yet I'm glad Marsh is here. I like his boisterous Bathers so much more than the muddy forays into cubism from some of these artists.
The works are thoughtfully arranged to suggest thematic similarities and to invite comparisons. And you should have an enjoyable time with the latter.
The show could be seen as an unintentional argument for American artists' inability to embrace thoroughly the European interpretations of a new kind of art. They just didn't feel the love if the collection here is representative of modernism.
Instead, a new generation of Yanks would leapfrog over European modernism in the 1950s, about where this show ends, and make New York the new epicenter of avant-garde art with (yes, a label, forgive me) abstract expressionism.
Perhaps too much import must be carried in modernism's three syllables. Or modernism could be in the wrong place at the wrong time; art movements rise, fall and rise again in stature through the centuries.
Yet it is part of our history and heritage. And there is plenty to love here: I submit Jacob Lawrence's Entertaining the Troops as Exhibit A+. It alone is worth the price of admission.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.