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MoMA opens survey of works from the first half of the 20th century by more than 50 artists
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965). American Landscape. 1930. Oil on canvas. 24 x 31″ (61 x 78.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art announces American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, on display from August 17, 2013, to January 26, 2014. The exhibition takes a fresh look at the Museum’s holdings of American art made between 1915 and 1950, and considers the cultural preoccupations of a rapidly changing American society in the first half of the 20th century. American Modern includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures by more than 50 artists, bringing together some of the Museum’s most celebrated masterworks, including pieces by Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Florine Stettheimer, Alfred Stieglitz, and Andrew Wyeth. Contextualizing these works across mediums and amid lesser-seen but revelatory compositions, American Modern offers these artists’ views of the United States in a period of radical transformation, expressed in a variety of visual styles, artistic movements, and personal visions. The selection of more than 100 works is organized thematically, depicting such subjects as urban and rural landscapes, scenes of industry, still-life compositions, and portraiture. This focused look at American masterworks and surprises in MoMA’s collection is organized by Kathy Curry, Assistant Curator, and Esther Adler, Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.

The clash between the urban realities of a rapidly modernizing society and a nostalgia for an idealized American countryside is a theme that runs throughout much of the exhibition. In Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925)—which, in 1930, was the first painting to enter the Museum’s collection—a Victorian manse cropped by the harsh horizontal of a railway track contrasts rapid modernization with an older way of life based in rural traditions. Charles Sheeler’s American Landscape (1930), which depicts the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant near Dearborn, Michigan, seems to celebrate newfound industrial efficiency but also remains ambivalent about its effects—missing are the thousands of people who made the factory run, and any sense of noise, dirt, or actual labor or hardship.

The city is also a frequent subject of works in American Modern, as evidenced in Walker Evans’s untitled photographs of urban architecture (c. 1928–29) and George Ault’s New Moon, New York (1945). Both capture the strong lines of bridges and skyscrapers in an almost abstract language, omitting the crush of people who flocked to the cities during these decades. John Marin’s images of New York present frenetic, celebratory compositions in which buildings and bridges themselves seem to be the source of the intense activity of the city.

Scenes of the American countryside also focus primarily on the land and structures, emphasizing shape and line. Sheeler’s photograph White Barn, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (1914–17) is shot so near to the barn wall that it conveys no sense of the overall structure, while the barn in Bucks County Barn (1932) sits squarely in the center of the painting, dominating the composition. Ralph Steiner’s American Rural Baroque (1930), with its empty rocking chair on a porch, suggests a simpler life and time. Charles Burchfield’s watercolors of 1916–18 capture a wild American landscape untamed by human intervention—the looming black forms of houses and a farm silo in Rogues’ Gallery (1916) are matched by a frieze of wilting sunflowers; the flowers singled out in The First Hepaticas (1917–18) are lost among the splintering tree trunks of a threatening forest. Georgia O’Keeffe’s stunning watercolor Evening Star, No. III (1917) also evokes the wide open spaces of the American landscape, with bands of color expanding across the page.

American Modern also includes key images of the people of this time. Florine Stettheimer’s whimsical family portrait in an artist-designed frame captures a high-society elegance. Elie Nadelman’s Woman at the Piano (1920–24) suggests a soundtrack for the upbeat parties of the era, while George Bellows’s prints of boxing matches (1916 and 1923–24) suggest the noise and liveliness of these major sporting events. In contrast, a stillness pervades Ben Shahn’s image of a New York handball game (1939), as well as Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of artists affiliated with his galleries, such as John Marin (1921–22), Charles Demuth (1923), and others. The still-life images and arrangements of objects in the exhibition include Edward Weston’s sensuous photograph of a pepper (Pepper No. 30, 1930) and Charles Demuth’s Eggplant and Tomatoes (1926). Stuart Davis’s Lucky Strike (1921) and Odol (1924), which feature abstracted images of mundane items, echo the tremendous presence of advertising imagery and commercial culture in the lives of modern Americans.

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August 19, 2013

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