It was probably the post-wedding hangover, but while I struggled with the room of abstracts, everything else about the Oxford Ashmolean gallery’s ‘American Modernism’ exhibition was pure joy.
‘American Modernism’ focuses on artistic movements in the USA between the Great Wars that were simultaneously shaking off the shackles of European influence and seeking to make sense of America’s dramatic economic growth and technological transformation. At least that is how I recall it and as I am mid-way through an eleven hour flight to Hanoi, the wonder-web is not available to fact check against my memory. But bear with me.
After tripping through an opening room of famous artists doing abstraction (music portrayed as colours, attempts to re-create the motion of the sea by painting on tin), we come to the work of a group of artists known as the ‘Precisionists’. They probably weren’t much fun, but their dedication to clean lines and precise drawing makes for a powerful depiction of a new era of colossal buildings, giant steel bridges, and mechanised agri-business. If the abstractionists were trying to capture the pure essence of things, the Precisionists were going for the bare structure.
George Ault’s ‘Hoboken Factory’ is a mesmerising example. A squat, rectangular building, the lower floors, like the streets outside, are cast in darkness and shadow. But the glass-walled upper levels glow with a menacing blue light. What was going on in there? It looks like they may have been attempting to achieve nuclear fusion, but probably they were just manufacturing boxes.
Like most of the paintings in the exhibition, Ault’s work is devoid of people. That’s true even of the three Edward Hoppers on display, although there is still plenty of his trademark voyeurism in ‘Manhattan Bridge Loop’, although it is structures, rather than humans, that the viewer is invited to spy on.
It would have been worth the entrance fee just to see the Hoppers, but my favourite piece in the exhibition has to be Charles Demuth’s ‘I saw the figure 5 in gold’. Largely featuring the number in question in various sizes, the painting nonetheless manages to convey the sense of a firetruck hurtling through a crowded city that is the subject of the William Carlos Williams poem upon from which the painting was inspired. Maybe my struggling synapses were able to process a bit of abstraction after all, or perhaps it was the helpful addition of the verse:
Among the rain
And the lights
I saw the figure 5
On a red
With weight and urgency
To gong clangs
And wheels rumbling
Through the dark city.