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Art Market Watch

by Daniel Grant
May 5, 2011 

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How do you see America? A land of small town chores and virtues, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Hart Benton? Or, cities filled with garish forms of entertainment for the teeming masses, a la Reginald Marsh? The rural world of Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, or the urban scene of Louis Lozowick and Martin Lewis? This is the stuff of American Scene painting, in which artists in the U.S. turned away from European styles of modern art in favor of depictions of everyday life in their burgeoning country.

Artnet Auctions Spring sale, The American Scene, May 3-10, 2011, features artworks from the first great 20th-century art movement in the U.S. George Bellows’ 1916 lithograph, the mournfully comic Benediction in Georgia (est. $3,000-$5,000), is one of the earliest artworks in the sale, depicting a Victorian-era southern preacher striving to uplift the spirits of a group of slumping prisoners, dressed in striped uniforms, clearly bored and exhausted.

German satirical artist George Grosz, who had fled his Nazified homeland in search of sanctuary in the United States, is represented by a ca. 1940 watercolor dunescape, Cape Cod, that suggests he did find some bucolic relief, at least for a time. The ca. 15 x 21 in. work, in its original frame from Associated American Artists, is estimated $7,000-$10,000.

In search of something with a different kind of vitality? The 1941 drypoint by American printmaker Martin Lewis’, titled Chance Meeting (est. $15,000-$20,000), illuminates a sidewalk flirtation between a young man and woman -- its romantic potential emphasized by their erotic body language -- in a classic scene illuminated by the lights from city newsstand.

The sale includes a mini-retrospective of Thomas Hart Benton, with a half dozen works dating from the 1910s through the ‘70s. The top lot, Benton’s Ten Pound Hammers (1965), a play on the folk tale of John Henry, shows three shirtless black workers and a smoke-belching locomotive building the steel railway through the American countryside. Bidding starts at $150,000.

My favorite is Benton’s 1972 lithograph Self Portrait, which has an opening bid of $2,900. Benton was ornery, and this image certainly supports that impression, as the artist depicts himself sternly gazing out at the viewer from inside his studio as if to complain about being interrupted. The print hints at Benton’s gruff sense of humor.

For those with a taste for the grotesque is a 1945 lithograph, Fleeting Time Thou Hast Left Me Old, by the celebrated Chicago surrealist Ivan Albright, who famously made the painting used as the central prop in the 1945 MGM melodrama, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Bidding on the work starts at $800.

Another strange one is Reginald Marsh’s 1938 watercolor Striptease with Black Stockings (est. $30,000-$40,000), a burlesque scene with a brutal carnality to it.

Two more works illustrate how the American Scene movement was defined in terms of the European modernism that had preceded it and the Abstract Expressionism that would succeed it. Marguerite Zorach’s 1925 linocut A Merry Christmas (Holiday Card) (est. $1,800-$2,200) has all the rough force of German Expressionist prints (now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, as it happens), while Milton Avery’s exquisite 1950 monotype Bather with Blue Towel (est. $30,000-$50,000) reveals an artist on the threshold of a new modernist style.

DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.