May 30, 2010

How America came to modern art (and vice versa)


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Oscar Bluemner’s “Landscape with Arched Trees,” 1918, gouache.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund

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Untitled (unfinished sketch of trees) by William Zorach, circa 1917, watercolor over graphite.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, gift of Dahlov Ipcar and Tessim Zorach

Additional Photos Below


WHAT: Methods for Modernism: Form and Color in American Art, 1900 to 1925

WHEN: Through July 11

WHAT: Learning to Paint: American Artists and European Art, 1876-1893

WHEN: Through July 3

WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick. 725-3275;

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (Thursday until 8:30 p.m.); Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.

COST: Free

Kandinsky's "Improvisation #7" (1910) is a similarly gorgeous, color-based painting. Yet, Oscar Bluemner (whose landscape with trees is one of the delights of the show) dismissed Kandinsky as a mere "theorist" and denounced his paintings as "not art -- just arrangements of sensitive whims."

Most works in the show side with the line/disegno camp: photos by Steichen, Weston, Strand and Sheeler; small cubist works by Picasso, Max Weber and Bluemner; even the great colorist Matisse (the belly curve of his figure alone makes this show worth seeing).

I think many of these artists were pursuing essentialist paths geared toward purging anything unnecessary from art. Some discarded color and made strong pictures. Others found that color alone made valid paintings.

But either mode could succeed. As long as the picture was legible, it worked.

At that moment, some artists (including Kandinsky) realized a painting did not need any recognizable object. It only had to be legible as a painting -- thus abstraction was born.

This radical break, among others (such as the open door to photography), disproves the essentialist argument that there is some eternal truth to painting -- or any art, for that matter.

I think the conclusion of these shows is that art will be whatever our culture learns to recognize as art.

This means, of course, that art will change as our culture's values and priorities change -- whatever direction or whatever reason.

While the catalog and the interesting quotes on the wall hint that "Methods for Modernism" is a heady show, it is nonetheless a gorgeous opportunity for visual indulgence. Whether you want to be intellectually challenged or simply enjoy some great art, these shows would be well worth your while.



Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:


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Additional Photos

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Joseph Stella’s “Spring (The Procession),” circa 1914-1916, oil on canvas.

Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Collection Societe Anonyme


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