American art, compared with that of other cultures, is still so very young, a bit more than 200 years old. But we have come a long way and our art has sprawled, changed and diversified as our country has. "American Moderns, 1910 to 1960: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art documents that diversity during the dramatic decades in the 20th century when American artists came into their own, claiming a distinctive voice that didn't try to mimic the assertive European chorus.
The 53 paintings and four sculptures by 42 artists come from the Brooklyn Museum and are divided into six sections: Cubist Experiments; The Still Life Revisited; Nature Essentialized; Modern Structures; Engaging Characters; and Americana. The notable omission is representation from abstract expressionism, which was, arguably, the movement that shifted the locus of Western art from Paris to New York beginning in the 1940s. The probable reasons for that absence, says Matthew McLendon, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ringling, are that the Brooklyn Museum doesn't have much of it and its value (with resulting insurance costs) makes it prohibitively expensive for loans to all but the biggest museums.
That aside, the show delivers on its claim with a good representation of what was important during those decades. The subtitle, "O'Keeffe to Rockwell," gets our immediate attention by referencing Georgia O'Keeffe and Norman Rockwell, two of our most beloved American artists. It's a smart publicity hook but, more to the point, it's a foreshadowing, using two famous artists working in the same time period who were at polar opposites of American art during their time. The earliest work, though, is a 1907 Max Weber portrait of his friend Abraham Walkowitz that is an homage to Paul Cezanne.
But let's start with O'Keeffe and Rockwell. O'Keeffe spent her career refining natural objects into ever more distilled abstractions. Four of her paintings are in the show and they are the most luminous examples ever to come to our region. The earliest is Black Pansy and Forget-Me-Nots (1926). The flowers float on a pale blue background and the pansy has the luxuriant texture of velvet. During a brief stay in Hawaii (hired by Dole in a thwarted ad campaign using her paintings of pineapples) she painted Fishhook From Hawaii (1939) in which the fly looks like a flower set against a telescoping ocean and horizon. The others, Yellow Leaves (1928) and Green, Yellow and Orange (1960), have a perfect affinity for each other, rendered in similar colors and illustrating the arc of O'Keeffe's career.
Whereas O'Keeffe had early and enduring respect as an artist, Rockwell was considered a magazine illustrator and never taken seriously by critics during his lifetime. In the last decade, he has been reappraised and his reputation as a fine artist, though still debated by some, has been solidly established. Unlike O'Keeffe, Rockwell loved realism and lots of telling details. The Tattoo Artist (1944) has both. In it, a young sailor is seated in profile as a tattoo artist inscribes the name of a girlfriend on his arm. It's hilarious, mostly because six names have already been inscribed and crossed out. Even better, they are names that reflect his travels as a sailor: Olga, Ming Fu and Mimi, for example. The newcomer is an American Betty.
In between these two very different, iconic painters are many interesting, compelling, even brilliant names, some better known than others. Social realist Jack Levine's Welcome Home (1946) is a harsh satire of a general being entertained in a restaurant by bigwigs. He employs El Greco's exaggerated figuration in the portrayals of the bloated military man and desiccated society lady on his right. Also notice the foreshortened figure of the waiter and everyone's disproportionately large hands.
The inclusion of George Bellows' The Sand Cart (1917) will seem odd because it is of a nonmodern scene in which men collect sand in a horse-drawn wagon against a bucolic landscape of beach, water and mountains. Even stranger, it's part of the Modern Structures section, which features industrial scenes with flattened perspectives and geometric compositional elements. When I asked McLendon, the Ringling's curator, about it, he said the connection between them is that the men are gathering sand to make the concrete with which the buildings in the other paintings are built. Those are obscure dots to connect but an interesting connection so I'm passing it along to readers and potential viewers.
One of the most arresting works in the show is Morris Hirshfield's Girl With Dog (1940). Hirshfield was self-taught and began painting when he retired in his 60s from a successful business career. It has the hallmarks of naive or folk art as does a more traditional landscape by Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses.
The way an exhibition is arranged is important to how we understand individual works, and McLendon has done a thoughtful job. The best example is one wall in the gallery with still lifes. Three by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Niles Spencer and Robert Brackman are lined up, each a tablescape sharing the modern tendency toward spatial distortion in varying degrees.
Sculptural representation is small but important. Warren Wheelock's carved wood work (1920s), inspired by the African tribal objects that began coming to the West during that decade, is one of the better examples of cubist sculpture. Historically, the effort to translate the forms on flat canvas into three dimensions was lost in the translation, especially on the back side of the work, but this one has a lyrical eloquence.
A big roundup such as this exhibition guarantees that though you aren't partial to some of the art, you will be delighted by much more. Docent tours, which previously were offered only for the permanent collection galleries, have been scheduled for this show at 11:30 and 1:30 daily. I recommend them. You might also consider purchasing the color catalog, at about $30, and skimming through it before the show. I'm partial to finding a shady bench on the Ringling's grounds near the water and a sea breeze. It's a good way to get to know many new people, places and things.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.