A haphazard ‘Modern American Realism’ at Smithsonian American Art Museum


Charles Burchfield, “Night of the Equinox,” 1917- 1955, watercolor, brush and ink, gouache, and charcoal, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

“Modern American Realism” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum makes an interesting pendant to a larger and more compelling show at the Phillips Collection, also devoted to American art from about the same period. The Smithsonian features many of the same artists, and in several cases, important works by some of the lesser-known artists who appear to such good effect in the Phillips exhibition. But it is also a more haphazard show, and that, too, is interesting when compared with the more consistent vision found in the Phillips’s “Made in the USA,” which opened on March 1.

“Modern American Realism” is devoted to work collected by the Sara Roby Foundation and donated to the museum in 1986. Sara Roby, who was also an artist, was devoted to figurative and realist painting, and began actively collecting American realism in the 1950s, when abstract expressionism was the exciting, progressive direction for young artists. Roby’s devotion to living artists working in the wide range of styles lazily lumped under the rubric “realism” can be seen in two ways: It was an act of cultural preservation, a defense of still vibrant forms against the juggernaut of fashion and progress; or a retardataire campaign against the only stylistic development that had brought true, international celebrity to American art.

Or both at the same time. Though not to the same degree as Duncan Phillips, Roby was ecumenical when it came to stylistic developments. Her “realists” include Mark Tobey and Louise Nevelson, neither of whom is represented by work that is conventionally realist. Many of the best artists in this exhibition demonstrate the still robust power of realism, either as a form of social critic, or a means of internal critique or expansion on centuries-old artistic ideas. Many of the most interesting make you forget the distinction altogether, with work that is uncategorizable.

Charles Burchfield, whose 1959 “December Moonrise” is one of the highlights of the Phillips exhibition, is represented at the Smithsonian by the almost equally powerful “Night of the Equinox.” The latter painting, a late-in-life expansion and reworking of an early watercolor, is almost monochromatic, but its surface is addled by an almost synesthetic fusion with the natural elements it depicts, as if houses are melting in the pelting rain, and the clouds electrically connected to the puddles they engorge.

Morris Graves, who contributed one of the most haunting images in the Phillips show (“August Still Life,” in which the forces of abstraction have untethered the conventional fruits and vases from a table such as one might find in a painting by Braque), is represented in the Roby collection by a more modest, but sweet, watercolor called “Hibernation.” Graves depicts a mink, curled up inside of what might well be one of Arthur Dove’s sun or moon forms, intersecting with another, more luminous pink and blue glowing orb. But the two paintings are not so different in the true, essential conservatism that unites them: A sense that in the present we cannot know what of the past is worth retaining, what of the future will be productive. The mink sleeps in what may also be an image of cells dividing, life going on, with the possibility that the representational form will awake in a new and more meaningful future.

Jack Levine’s “Inauguration,” painted in 1956-58, is a happy discovery; an unresolved, over-painted, expressionist view of American politics in which three presidents (Wilson, Truman and Eisenhower) have been mashed up in a phantasmagoria of American symbols, urban clutter and art historical allusion. Paul Caranicas’s meticulously rendered “Fort Tilden II,” from 1979, is another work with which it’s worth spending substantial time. It is a drawing, in pencil, of a concrete tunnel, looking toward the light, apparently done at one of the U.S Army installations created to defend New York during after the world wars of the last century.

Caranicas’s image, however, feels disconcertingly photographic, not just in the precision of the drawing and his rendering of light and surfaces, but in the tunnel-like view to the light beyond, which is framed by a grid that looks like the flat plane on which photographic images are captured in the dark belly of a camera. The walls of the interior space are decaying and covered in condensation, so if this is an analogue to the black box of the camera, it’s a corrupted machine. Perhaps, too, we are meant to think of Plato’s cave and the age-old fear that reality will always be shadowy, remote and perhaps illusionary.

There are plenty of not-so-compelling works here, too, and certainly more on average than in the Phillips exhibition. The cartoon-like social realism pursued by too many artists in the last century is abundantly represented, as are works that seem indistinguishable from the slight fantasies, jokes and postcard sentimentality of commercial illustration — which is not a reference to Saul Steinberg, often described as a cartoonist, who contributes a wonderfully vexing panel of watercolor and ink drawings that seem to be official blueprints for some reconfiguration of the world or perhaps a government-approved storyboard for an unknown propaganda exercise.

Curiously, and frustratingly, the first gallery of the show features work by George Tooker and Paul Cadmus, both of them gay artists, interconnected stylistically and personally, and often pursuing similar ideas or themes. The only connection between the two artists offered is that they both “painted in egg tempera.” Worse, while the description of Cadmus’s “Night in Bologna” claims it is “a provocative painting,” it goes to absurdist lengths to avoid the transparently obvious homoeroticism of the painting: “A traveler with a suitcase seated at a café table observes a soldier in uniform, who looks toward a strolling woman. Each is bathed in a different color of light: the soldier in red for lust, the woman in yellow for greed, and the tourist in green for envy.” But the male tourist is very clearly cruising the soldier, and if he’s jealous of anyone it’s of the strolling woman.

Note to the Smithsonian American Art Museum: It’s 2014, and while the tourist may be bathed in green, he’s also feeling the red. Scrubbing his desire from history is shameful.

Modern American Realism

The Sara Roby Foundation Collection is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Aug. 17. For more information, visit www.americanart.si.edu.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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