Some large retrospectives feel like mountainous territory, peak after peak in an artistic life filled with triumphs. The National Gallery of Art’s large exhibition devoted to the work of George Bellows, the first major Bellows show since a 1992 painting retrospective in Los Angeles, feels more like pieces of a puzzle, a fascinating, imperfect puzzle. And when you have finished exploring the diversity of an American artist who died tragically young at the age of 42 in 1925, you may not feel as if the puzzle is quite complete.
But if you emerge willing to think pluralistically about modernism — that there was no monolithic Modernism with a capital M, but rather a host of different modernisms often in conflict with one another — then the work of Bellows will make more sense, and the curators will have accomplished their primary goal. As with so many artists, poets and composers who lived during periods that seemed (at the time) wildly eclectic and are considered (decades or centuries later) historically transitional, Bellows is unclassifiable. If you ignore large tracts of his work, he can, at best, be pigeonholed. This exhibition demands that Bellows’s oeuvre be considered as a whole, including a room of deeply disturbing paintings he made in response to World War I, political imagery that veers toward social caricature, and portraits in which the artist seems to be channeling the ethos of another era. In other words, a career of many modernisms.
When Bellows died of infection from a ruptured appendix in 1925, he was the most celebrated American artist of his age. A quarter-century later, when abstract expressionism was heralded as the first great, truly American artistic movement, Bellows was remembered primarily for a handful of paintings he made early in his career. Among these were the boxing works, “Stag at Sharkey’s” and “Both Members of This Club” (both from 1909) and “Club Night” (from 1907), in which boxers were depicted in the dynamic throes of combat, looming over the vicious and stupid faces of spectators, with arms and legs interlocked, like snapshots of statues by Rodin brought suddenly to life. The apparent speed in what is depicted and in the way the paint is put on the canvas, and the thrilling economy of gesture (musculature is limned with a few precise streaks of shadow and color), made these works seem the most “modern” of Bellows’s career — if one defined modern from the perspective of abstract expression and subsequent taste.
But Bellows painted many other things, and his early career is filled with stunning work that feels closely connected to the boxing pictures. His images of the excavation and construction of Pennsylvania Station have a similar minimalist expressionism, studies in mood and light that are more than the sum of their parts. They do for urban geology what Chaim Soutine did for meat. Seascapes from 1913, painted while Bellows was a resident in Maine, have a tempestuous energy every bit as vital as the boxing works. And early paintings of New York, including a 1911 canvas stuffed with people, horses, buildings and conveyances, suggest an artist feverishly exploring aesthetic breaking points: How much is too much? How little is not enough? Where is the line between the suggestive and the meaningless daub of paint?