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Tag Archives: 20th Century American Painting

I found myself wondering this morning what Edward Hopper, who was painting scenes of personal isolation and alienation more than a century ago, would think if he were around today as saw people “talking” to each other by tapping a screen on a smartphone.

For me, the smartphone is the perfect symbol of the slow, agonizing death of conversation. We don’t have to talk to anyone anymore; we just need to send a stream of sentence fragments through the ether and wait for a similar set of sentence fragments to come bouncing back. I’ve actually seen, more than once, groups of people at restaurant tables not talking to each other but, instead, silently pounding out messages on their little screens to people God knows where. It makes me wonder why they bothered to come out in the first place.

I imagine you could take any number of Hopper’s paintings, put smartphones in the hands of the people therein, and not really change the painting much at all. The technology wouldn’t create the distance between people, it would only make it a bit more tangible.

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Take a good look at Cape Cod Evening, above. If you put a pair Iphone 5s in the hands of this couple, would you really widen the obvious gulf between them? I don’t think so. Do the same with his classic Nighthawks. Same result.

Take a look, too, at the dog; animated, aware, living the moment in both time and space. This is one reason why, if I were ever given the choice, I just might choose to live at least one lifetime as a dog.

I doubt Hopper, who would be celebrating his 129th birthday today if he were still among us, would be pleased by what he would see, but I’d bet that he’d notice it. The smartphone certainly didn’t put this chasm between us, but it certainly gave it, figuratively speaking, some weight.

On this day in 1931, American Impressionist artist Robert Spencer ended his own life at the age of 51. I saw his name in one of my “this day in art history” sources and was puzzled by the fact that despite his fairly impressive resume, I can’t recall ever hearing of him before. None of my American Art references mention him. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, which to me is the very pinnacle of obscurity these days. This seems a bit tragic to me because Robert Spencer, the artist who has no Wikipedia page, probably has more relevance to my life than Robert Spencer, the Second Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702), who DOES have his own Wikipedia page.

My own small contribution toward correcting this art historical oversight will be featuring Spencer’s work here, thereby insuring that at least 7 other people will see it.

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

A Nebraska native, Spencer ended up in New York early in the 20th Century and studied under both William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, possibly the two most important educators on the American art scene at the time. Rather than stay in New York, he drifted around for a little while and ultimately ended up in  Pennsylvania, specifically Bucks County, in 1916, where he came to be associated with a group of painters known as the “New Hope School.”

The New Hope School practiced an art known collectively as Pennsylvania Impressionism. They were united more by geography than style. Of their creative output that I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t a lot, Spencer’s work stands out because of his workaday subjects and subtle, almost somber tones. He was a painter of the working class, not of the leisure class. The people in his paintings are usually features, not subjects, and they don’t often look like they’re having much fun.

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

He was well known and respected in his time and his work hangs in some of our finest museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Chicago Institute of Art, and our own Detroit Institute of Art, which owns the first of the paintings I’ve presented here; On the Canal, New Hope. If it’s currently hanging, I’ll hunt it down like I did John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar two years ago. Influential collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips compared Spencer favorably to Sloan (high praise indeed) and the museum Phillips founded owns eight of Spencer’s paintings.

Spencer was not a happy guy despite his relative success. He suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in his later years owing to a bad marriage and his work took a decidedly darker tone. The third painting here, On the Quai, is to my eye pretty disturbing and grows even more so the longer I look at it. I can only sense sadness in this image, the source of which is left to the viewers imagination. Given the choice, I’m not enthusiastic about entering the door Spencer has opened up for us.

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

Spencer was producing a body of intriguing work when killed himself in his studio on this day in 1931. He could have had a couple of decades of productive painting ahead of him had he not chosen to punch out early, so to speak. The artistic legacy he left us is competent and thought-provoking. If even one more person takes an extra moment to consider it, I will have done my job.

 

 

 

It can be said that our perception of our history is an integral part of our identity both as a nation and, more importantly, as a culture. History can be pretty malleable as we continue to reexamine our path and alter the record to suit the moment, but Americans tend to cling pretty tightly to their own mythology even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I learned in school that Columbus was a hero, the Indians were bloodthirsty savages, and that immigrants of all nations were welcomed with open arms. Additional information has called these assumptions, and many others, into question.

History is indeed written by the winners, but in the case of the history of American Art , who are these “winners” exactly? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out?

There are times when today’s winners can become tomorrow’s afterthought, and I am reminded of this very poignantly by an ancient book on American painting that I have in hand today. The book, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, was written by Alexander Eliot (who, now in his 90s, has his own website) and produced by the editorial staff of Time Magazine. I picked the book up on a recent trip to Hoyt Library, a beautiful relic of the early 1900s in Downtown Saginaw. It was published in the year of my birth (1957),  when Eliot, not exactly a canonical figure in art historical circles, was art editor at Time Magazine when not only Time but the popular press in general featured art with great depth and frequency.

My first reaction upon reading Eliot’s book was how far publishing has advanced in my lifetime. The illustrations are dreadfully muddy and dull in color but probably well up to the standards of the day. They were prepared originally for Time, which had only begun using color images six years before. By the time my brain started recording memories of color images in magazines, color photos and ads in Life Magazine in the mid-1960s, technology had already made these pictures look dated. Today, when I can access thousands of high-quality digital images of just about anything I want in a matter of seconds,  they look a little dated.

Despite the now-substandard publication quality, the book is a fascinating survey or American art history as understood in the middle of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism was the well along the way toward making New York the Art Capital of the World. The Great Depression and Second World War were recent memories and the baby boom was in full swing. Pop Art was just beginning to take its first wobbly steps, everyone was paranoid about being nuked by the Commies, and the Space Age was in its infancy. America was a very different place.

The long arc of American Painting is well represented in this book, but what really struck me was the inclusion of painters who have all but vanished from our consciousness. Not just a few of them, a lot of them. The chapter based loosely on the painters in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (including 20th Century heavyweights Georgia O’keeffe and John Marin,  themselves now considered passe’ by a lot of Art Hipsters) includes a group I’ve never heard of, a group who have pretty much vanished from the more contemporary literature of American art. These guys were regarded highly enough for inclusion, yet can’t even seem to merit a seat that the proverbial table today.

Take for example the case of Karl Knaths. You have to dig a little to find out much about him (this brief biography is courtesy of the Phillips Collection, which owns a number of his paintings). Knaths enjoyed some prominence as an artist and educator right up until his death in 1971. Stylistically, he transitioned from representation through cubism to abstraction,  yet the historical record on him is so sparse that I can’t even find a reproduction of the painting featured in Eliot’s book, Horse Mackerel, anywhere on line. Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948 - from The Phillips Collection)

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948)

The same fate has befallen William Kienbusch (1914 – 1980), who was respected well enough to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 but has since been largely purged from Art’s memory banks. At his creative peak, Kienbusch was associated with the same New York School that gave us Abstract Expressionism, a artistic malaise that that I’ve discussed before; now, he’s an historical asterisk. At the Kienbusch that Eliot featured in his book (owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is available online, sadly only in black and white. Instead, I give you Early Morning Baker Island, a painting that went for the very affordable sum of $1,700 in 2005.

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Of the six artists added the tail end of the chapter in question, only Milton Avery seems to have survived the murky, fog-shrouded 1950s to enjoy a measure of notoriety today. although none of the others seem to suffer the obscurity of Knaths and Kienbusch. One of them, Theodoros Stamos, actually enjoys a fairly prominent place in art history not for his art but for his role as the executor of Mark Rothko’s estate and his involvement in in a lawsuit brought by Rothko’s wherein he lost his ass.

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

The lesson here, I suppose, is that no matter what you think you may have accomplished in your life, history is a harsh and fickle mistress. Your life will be better served if you simply do good work for its own sake and let others worry about your legacy because you can’t control it. Fame is fleeting, art endures.

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)