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America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

4 July 2018 | Emily May

The term “cool” has many connotations. But the current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford isn’t referring to a lowered temperature or being hip and stylish. This is American Cool in reference to a sense of cool detachment to the modern world, which was exhibited by a range of American modern artists through the 20s and 30s, yet it’s concerns and preoccupation with mechanical and technological advancements feel surprisingly relevant to today.

Split into 6 sections, America’s Cool Modernism takes you on a journey of artworks from Georgia O’Keeffe to Edward Hopper, and contrasts a celebration of machinery’s geometric order and efficiency with an ambivalence towards city life and a search to return to nature and American folk art. The first room you enter seems to act as an introduction to the style of American abstraction and its preoccupation with reducing images into their purest form with clean lines and geometric shapes, before plunging you head first into the world of harsh skyscrapers and machines of the subsequent rooms. A stand out work is Edward Steichen’s Le Tournesol (The Sunflower, c.1920) which breaks down a sunflower in a vase into geometric shapes, yet - unlike many other abstract paintings - is still recognisable and comparable to its original subject.

Image Credit: Figure 5 (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 
As you progress into the industrial heart of the exhibition, you will notice an eerily evident absence of human figures in the paintings, creating a sense of emptiness. This is particularly notable in George Ault’s Hoboken Factory (1932), which appears to be run by an invisible work force, and even when people are present, such as in Edward Hopper’s Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) they are solitary and shrouded by shadows, suggesting a loneliness that comes with urban living. Even the stand out work I saw the figure 5 in gold (1928) by Charles Demuth – technically a portrait of the poet William Carlos Williams – is devoid of human life, instead depicting emblazoned numbers, a background of soaring skyscrapers, streetlights and incomplete typography reminiscent of advertisements. It’s a form of reverse personification, as Demuth represents his friend with inanimate objects and text, seemingly reflecting the obsession with material “things” and the impending consumerism that would come to epitomise the United States as we know it today. This allusion to consumerism is also noticeable in Stuart Davis’ Odol (1924), a deadpan depiction of a mouthwash bottle regarded as a precursor to Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s renowned screen-printed soup cans.

Image Credit: Manhattan Bridge Loop (c) heirs of Josephine N Hopper liscenced by the Whitney Museum of American Art
 
Despite many of the artistic explorations on display being endeavours to find a new American style unhindered by European influences, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to other artistic contexts as you meander through the mechanical artworks. Descriptions of artists such as George Josimovich overtly admit affinities with Parisian Purism (a style founded by French architect Le Corbusier), whilst Louis Lozowick’s work is evidently influenced by his travels to Paris, Berlin and Moscow. In particular, his painting Red Circle (1924) reflects the inspiration he has taken from visiting European Cities as it bears clear signs of Russian Constructivism, ironically a style that became synonymous with a regime which America would come to oppose in the latter half of the 20th Century.
 
Furthermore, with their geometric depictions of building and skyscrapers, Lozowick’s works New York (1925) and Minneapolis (1925) are also extremely reminiscent of the harsh urban landscape created in German Expressionist Director Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis and remind us that an ambivalence towards modernity also permeated German as well as American society. But what is disturbing is that, unlike Lang’s fantasy dystopia, the works on display at the Ashmolean are precise depictions of the technological reality American artists saw unfolding around them.

Image Credit: New York (c) Estate of Louis Lozowick
 
This precise reflection of the world is particularly exemplified by the photographic and filmic works on display, as technological advancements enabled artists to experiment with new mediums and represent reality like never before. There’s a plethora of photography (pleasingly by both male and female artists such as Imogen Cunningham and Paul Strand), as well as a projection of Charles Scheeler’s avant-garde film Manhatta (1921) which displays sweeping views of New York architecture, and again anticipates of the art of Weimar Berlin, particularly Walter Rutman’s 1927 documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.   

Image Credit: Americana (c) Estate of Charles Sheeler
 
After all this industrialism it is a relief to transition into the final room of the exhibition, “Home Grown America”, which presents works by artists who responded to the mechanisation of the city by “escaping to the countryside” and casting their minds back to the work of American folk art. For example, Benton Murdoch Spruance’s American Pattern – Barn (1940) cuts up a farm scene into sections and becomes reminiscent of traditional American quilting, whilst other works such as Charles Sheeler's Americana (1931) depict humble abodes populated with Shaker furniture. Yet it does not feel like this section has been included to make a political statement, or to criticise other artists’ mechanical occupations. Whilst some rousing repudiation of dehumanisation and the capitalist machine could have been fun, the Ashmolean stays true to the detached approach of its subject matter, curating their exhibition with the same commitment to precision and objectivity as the artists they present.
 
America’s Cool Modernism is running until 22 July at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 2PH.
 

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