In June, we described the Art Institute of Chicago’s newly reinstalled galleries of 18th- and 19th-century American art, which merge its holdings with a selection of works from the now-defunct Terra Museum of American Art. Now we review the Art Institute’s collection of American art dating from 1900 to 1950. It is mostly painting with a smattering of sculptures and decorative arts. Just two of the works on exhibition come from the Terra Museum and the remainder are from the Art Institute.
Two artists dominate this presentation: James McNeill Whistler, who is the key transitional figure between the 19th and 20th centuries; and Georgia O’Keeffe, who gave a definitive collection of modernist paintings to the Art Institute.Expats of the Gilded Age
John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Whistler lived in Europe for many years and absorbed the styles of the time. Mary Cassatt, who was influenced by Europe’s discovery of Japanese art, makes exquisite domestic scenes. The Child’s Bath (1893), an Art Institute icon, is as tenderly beautiful a painting as one could ever hope to see, but there’s nothing very innovative or American about it.
Sargent’s The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) is Japanese-influenced in its complex composition, tight cropping, and unusual angle of view. One of history’s most gifted painters, Sargent was particularly adept with colors in the white/cream and white/gray range, bringing key areas of this work to life in a stroke or two. As we see him here, Sargent does the best that can be done with the styles of his age, but does not point beyond it.
The exhibition contains three works by Whistler: Trouville (Gray and Green; The Silver Sea) (1865); Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Southampton Water (1872); and Violet and Silver — The Deep Sea (1893). All are Impressionist-influenced European seascapes. Nocturne is a straightforward twilight view of an ocean inlet with shadowy forms of sailing vessels at rest, harbor lights and a marvelous pale moon. Water and sky seem to merge: both are almost the same color. In Nocturne, Whistler used a special technique, brushing on very liquid paint (he called it "sauce") in fast sweeps, much like an Oriental calligrapher. He put so much life and immediacy into his paint that we wonder if it’s not still wet.
A harbor scene is hardly a fresh idea for a painting, but Whistler insisted that the focus be not on his subject matter but what he made of it. The true subject of Nocturne is color, pattern, form and the way light hangs in the air just before sunset. Whistler made this painting in 1872, so it is a 19th century work, but his restless experimentation and rejection of the academic make it very modern. Whistler was a man of his time, but he pointed toward the 20th century.
The Art Institute has so many Whistler paintings and works on paper that it could easily prepare a mini-monographic show from its own collections. As things stand now, we have paintings in the 19th-century galleries, more in the 20th-century galleries and works on paper that were shown recently and rotated back into storage. Assembling the work in one place would be a boon to understanding.Urban Realism?
Work from the first two decades of the 20th century -- a time of great artistic diversity -- is gathered in one gallery and misleadingly labeled "Urban Realism." Some of the work, such as George Benjamin Luks’ The Butcher Cart (1901) is Ashcan School realism, but other paintings are simply figurative. Among them are George Wesley Bellows’ My Mother (1909), a dignified portrait; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Disciples at the Tomb (1906), a Biblical scene; and Robert Henri’s Himself and Herself (both 1913), portraits of Irish peasants.
Paul Manship’s Dancer and Gazelles (1916) is a frieze-like sculptural fantasy, an irresistible cream puff, with a young woman at center clad in a Greek tunic and holding her arms like an Indian dancer. Stylized gazelles prance on either side. John Sloan’s Renganeschi’s Saturday Night (1912) shows three women, dressed in the latest fashions, seated around a restaurant table, enjoying girls’ night out. Heaven knows what they are talking about, but this scene is so familiar that updating the hair and clothing styles would immediately place it in the present day. Gifford Beal’s Spotlight (1915) takes us backstage at a theatrical spectacle. We see performers awaiting their entrances in front of tall, pale-colored cloth backdrops.
Another perfect delight -- a personal favorite of many years standing -- is John Storrs’ Ceres (1928), a cast chrome-plated sculpture, which is the maquette for a full-sized work that tops Chicago’s Board of Trade building, where commodity futures are bought and sold. Dressed in a long classical gown, the goddess holds plump bags of grain.Stieglitz and his Circle
The photographer Alfred Stieglitz ran pioneering modern art galleries in New York City from 1905 to 1946, representing Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, John Storrs and Georgia O’Keeffe. After Stieglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe, his widow, donated his art collection to the Art Institute along with many paintings of her own.
Cubism and Futurism influenced the Stieglitz circle, but instead of just aping what they saw, the Stieglitz group absorbed modernist innovations and applied them to American subject matter. Demuth’s Spring (1921) is a painting of fabric sample cards on a table. The cards, which are all planes, overlap and intersect each other recalling Braque, but Demuth has found a fresh way to look at life instead of just applying a formula. Business (1921) is the façade of a factory, painted very flat in soft colors. Here again Demuth applies Braque’s innovations to American subject matter, but makes something new.
Demuth and Sheeler modernized Futurist diagrammatics and used them in paintings of industry. Demuth’s And the Home of the Brave (1931) is a stylized scene (very flat) with a factory building, water tower, smokestack, stoplight and light pole. In Western Industrial (1955), Sheeler uses diagonal shapes, shadows, staircases and handrails to define and animate his image of a steel plant.Three Black Painters
The exhibition includes paintings by Rufino Tamayo, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera that should be hung elsewhere in the museum. These paintings, which stick out like so many sore thumbs, reflect social and political conditions in Mexico that have little to do with the American experience. Also, these artists have done better work than we see here.
The Art Institute has a small, choice collection of work by black artists. Jacob Lawrence’s The Wedding (1948) is a semi-abstract painting that emphasizes the stage-like quality of the wedding ceremony. We look into the church at a couple with their backs to us and the minister between them. Framing the scene at left and right are vertical stained-glass panels. Just inside the panels are the best man and maiden of honor, then the couple and minister, all pole-like in shape and without distinct features. Though all the people in this painting are black, we see them as participants in a human ritual, and not as representatives of a race.
Archibald Motley’s Nightlife (1943), an Art Institute favorite, is a wonderfully active nightclub scene, done in violets and purples, with dancing couples, drinkers standing at the bar, and revelers everywhere. Nightlife is said to represent Chicago’s Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood. Horace Pippin’s Cabin in the Cotton (before 1937), a painting of settled rural life, depicts a cabin in Dixie with rows of cotton behind it. Pippin, who was self-taught, apparently drew this scene on a panel and filled in the lines with thick paint. The color seems almost baked on.
The modern American exhibition ends in a blaze of glory in what must be called the Georgia O’Keeffe Room, for it contains 11 of her paintings. O’Keeffe was really the Compleat Painter with a distinctive style built on drawing and color -- and subject matter that she made completely her own. Her desert paintings so clearly depict the light and landscape of the U.S. Southwest -- an area like no other in the world -- that she has the last word on the subject. There is nothing an artist can say about New Mexico that O’Keeffe has not said better.
A final word. The Art Institute has designated one gallery for changing exhibitions of American works on paper. The current show is "Picturing Victorian Life," with 31 pieces from the Art Institute and two from the Terra Museum collections. We saw a Currier & Ives print with horses clip-clopping, Winslow Homer engravings from Harper’s Magazine and five prints by Mary Cassatt.
Homer’s The Great Russian Ball at the Academy of Music (1863) shows a huge ballroom, filled with hundreds of people, all dressed to the nines. Mustachioed, sideburned gentlemen, looking very gallant and martial in their Civil War uniforms, sweep ravishing beauties in full gowns around the dance floor. So very light are these ladies that their feet hardly touch the ground -- and, in fact, are hardly visible.
Among the Cassatt prints, our favorite was The Map or The Lesson (1889-90), with two girls seated at a table, absorbed in looking at a map or a lesson. We view them from far above and the artist tells us all we need to know about them in a few lines and the barest touch of shadow. This work could not be more economical.
Throughout these galleries, the Art Institute has installed benches. This blessed innovation comes from James Cuno, the new director. Thank you for this, Mr. Cuno, and thanks to the Art Institute for an invigorating exhibition of American art.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.