What does it mean to be modern? This is a tough question. For the painters featured in this recent Ashmolean exhibition, modernity is about making things and going places. The pictures are preoccupied with images of industry, advertisement, rail transport, and – above all – the forms and structures of the urban environment.
At first glance, we detect a sense of shocked wonder at the landscape rising from the ashes of nineteenth century Europe. But this wonder is superficial – this brave new world is dark and lonely, and so too is its art.
The exhibition opens with a series of abstractions. E.E. Cummings, better known for his poetry, features alongside abstract Arthur Dove, Helen Torr, and Georgia O’ Keefe.
O’ Keefe, whose ‘Black Abstraction’, a dark painting inspired by her experience of going under anaesthetic, is a disturbing highlight.
The paintings of Dove and Torr are afforded their own section in the exhibition, a section in which they hunt down the underlying structures behind both modern objects and the natural world.
They condense fishing boats and tanks, but also mountains and leaves, into to their fundamental geometric shapes, and the resulting paintings are completely absorbing.
The exhibition moves on into a room with a high ceiling, dissected aptly by geometric banks of shade and light. Here, urban environments are clinical and clean, precise and ordered.
Paintings like Niles Spencer’s ‘Waterfront Mill’ – an angular and distorted image of an industrial world utterly without humans – are exhibited next to pieces like Charles Demuth’s ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’.
Demuth’s piece is a monumental and jarring work based on a poem by his friend, William Carlos Williams, of plums-in-the-ice-bucket fame.
Whilst different in colour and composition, both betray a cold, unforgiving vision of society and day-to-day American life.
Perhaps my two favourite pieces sum up the exhibition as a whole; George Ault’s paintings ‘Hoboken Factory’ and ‘New York Night, no. 2’ are both nocturnal images of the industrial, urban environment.
In ‘Hoboken Factory’, a factory emanates an eerie blue light into the ether. ‘New York Night’ shows a dark, empty city street, with tall, imposing buildings, thick mist, and very little light or people.
These are unsettling paintings. We sense clearly the solitude and alienation generated by a city driven, primarily, to produce, buy and sell.
The final room contains three paintings by Edward Hopper, alongside a series of images depicting agricultural architecture and skies.
Edward Hopper’s selected paintings capture his signature juxtaposition between warmth and depth of colour and the cool isolation of his compositions.
Hopper really understood skies, and the sunrise depicted in ‘Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942’ is wonderfully turquoise and spreads tentatively and realistically across the canvas’ upper half. Fittingly, the son is obscured behind a train engine.
There are also several paintings by Ralston Crawford. Brutally geometric depictions of silos and grain elevators, essential features of the American rural economy, these paintings are violently, arrestingly stark, evoking the linear abstraction which began the exhibition.
There isn’t much American art in British galleries, and this exhibition does well to present a wide range of painters, both male and female. It evokes, somehow, both Whitman’s ebullient energy and the moral uncertainty of F. Scott Fitzgerald, even Salinger’s postwar isolation.
The novelty of an industrial world seems alien to a modern audience. But the sense of isolation and foreboding these works evoke is more relevant than ever.