The American Scene

23 March 09 words: Frances Ashton
The Djanogly Gallery has been charged with the mammoth task of representing the first half of the twentieth century in American art history.


Hans Burkhardt, After the Bomb, 1948 © Hans G. & Thordis W.Burkhardt Foundation, Courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles

I’m being told a story. It’s a confusing, sometimes frightening, sometimes optimistic rendition of a country’s struggle to identify itself amidst tumultuous change. This is The American Scene. Its been brought right up to our doorstep, or the Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham to be precise. And there’s an awful lot to see here. 

The two rooms in the Djanogly Art Gallery, normally sufficient to support a handful of artists, have been charged with the mammoth task of representing the first half of the twentieth century in American art history. And while this is exciting in itself, especially considering this is a travelling British Museum exhibit, it feels, after almost an hour and a half, a little overwhelming. An opinion that is shortly confirmed by an acquaintance without me even voicing my own.

“There’s too much to see, isn’t there?” he says, “I’ll have to go for a break and come back.” Fair enough, I think. But the problem with relating this story is that it involves events with far-reaching consequences (two world wars for example), a melee of artistic styles and a great deal of progress in terms of building and technology.

How, indeed, does one sum this up? The exhibition itself tries to be that summary, and to snatch a few examples of how American artists themselves responded to all they witnessed and felt during those years. Although the fact that it concentrates on prints is slightly disappointing for anyone expecting the vibrant colours of early modernist painting, the strength of the narrative is compelling enough.

James E. Allen, The Connectors. Etching, c.1934. Courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery,
New York

 It’s the contrasting elements that I find most intriguing; abstract styles filtering through from Europe that are peppered with more naturalistic snapshots of American life. While artist Blanche Lazzell indulges in aesthetics, inspired by the cubist visions of Gleizes, Braque and the European avant garde, Edward Hopper explores the anxiety faced by the individual as America began to define itself as a progressive, materialistic nation. Here, the brightly coloured Blue Vase  sits side by side with the desolate Night in the Park.

For some of these artists modernism meant finding new ways of making art, whilst for others it was documentary realism exposing the perils of modern, often working class, life. So Depression-era America gives birth to both Stuart Davies’ geometric, non-representational forms and to Reginald Marsh; his work Bread Line accurately pinpointing the dispiriting gloom of the 1930s, with its tight oblong composition constricting the queue of dark figures.

It is only in the work of Louis Lozowick and other “Precisionists” that a marriage is made between cutting-edge art and contemporary life. The clean, sweeping lines he employs in New York echo the Art Deco architecture of the period and celebrate the urban landscape and the growth of the city.

As I move amongst these images, the story remains muddled with political, social and artistic motives. Occasional glimpses of optimism sit at odds amongst displays which often make for grim viewing. A James McConnell print jumps and jives with all the exuberance of the “Jazz Age”; though it makes a sharp contrast to the images of Negro and immigrant workers, their harsh realities adorning the opposite wall. But in the climatic stage of the show, a completely new force comes into play.

    Fred Becker, Fandango, 1949, Courtesy
Carla Becker 

The horrors of the Second World War and the strange tension of the Cold War that followed was a backdrop to a new direction in contemporary art. And so it is that fear, isolation and uncertainty reign in the final displays; the room that holds them has a mood of self-reflection, the internal being explored in response to the external.

And whilst Pollocks and DeKoonings litter the walls with their tangled lines and emotive smears, it is Leonard Baskin’s monumental Hydrogen Man that dominates this space. A figure both ghastly and beautiful stands literally eaten away; here, the implications of nuclear weaponry and the fragile “balance of fear” climate of the age is instantly and chillingly characterised.

I am accompanied in my endeavours round the gallery by a group of schoolchildren, and as I attempt to make sense of what I’m seeing, I can’t help wondering how they’re faring. 

“Go and find one of the paintings that you like and draw it” their teacher calls, scattering the children far and wide, amongst different canons, influences and decades. With so much choice, its no wonder, that like me, they seem somewhat unsure where to start. But again, like me, it doesn’t stop them from eagerly trying to soak it all up. An exhibition this rich in context, though a little demanding, is still well deserving of an hour of your time.

The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, Djanogly Art Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University, 28th february to 19th April 2009.

Lakeside Arts Centre

Front page image: Hugo Gellert, The Fifth Column, Screenprint, c. 1943

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