Housed in two galleries at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, “Methods for Modernism: Form and Color in American Art, 1900 to 1925” presents a healthy survey of works by artists featured in the two most definitive venues for introducing European modernism to America, the 1913 New York Armory Show and Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, or “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession.” The teaching exhibit draws works from the Bowdoin and Yale collections that embody the various technical and ideological breakthroughs marking the advent of modernism.
‘SPRING (THE PROCESSION)’ Oil on canvas by Joseph Stella, 75 x 40 inches.
Supplemented with explanatory texts by curator Diana Tuite and quotes from Willard Huntington Wright’s 1923 The Future of Painting, and Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work, the show rips through the –isms, highlighting the explosion of artistic innovation brewing during the first quarter of the 20th century. Including, among others, a quiet and moody 1893 example of Neo-Impressionism by Maximilien Luce, a 1915 cubist Picasso painting, and a 1920 photo by Paul Strand, the show offers a reasonably cohesive overview of young artists’ break from academia and traditional methods of art-making, the turn to abstraction, and the influence and integration of art photography.
Requisite modern painters Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Kirchner, and Henri Rousseau hang alongside impressive surprises by the less renowned, also seeking to capture the ephemeral over the tangible. A delicate and clunky Charles Burchfield gouache distills an October landscape to a flat hovering molecule-like clump of autumnally hued balloons, a swatchboard of foliage, with a single graphite line suggesting a tree trunk.
Several Oscar Bluemner paintings stand out among major works. Bluemner, who showed in both the 1913 Armory Show and with Stieglitz at 291, simplified reality and used assertive, dramatic colors in his landscapes to emotional effect. In his 1918 “Landscape with Arched Trees” fleshy warm buildings are painted softly and casually but with careful perspective, and rounded black trees in the foreground wrap around the edges of the composition while grass-green mountains in the background are flat and naïve. The overall effect of the work is playful and nostalgic, a hot summer day.
Two works by Joseph Stella are featured. One simple “Peach,” a realistic still-life drawn in graphite and colored pencil, is juxtaposed with the neighboring “Spring (The Procession),” a celebratory oil on canvas painted three years earlier. “Spring” sits centered on a lime wall in the gallery, heightening the experience of the spiraling verdant eruption of cubist shards. While evading any attachment to subject or representation, color and light are manipulated to pull the eye upward from a dense prismatic darkness to an ethereal yonder.
“Machine Ornament, Abstraction,” a Louis Lozowick pen-and-ink, contributes Russian avant-garde influence to the show. A graphic and saturated industrial detail is rendered in such an extreme perspective it becomes symbolic, shifting from representational to abstracted architectural landscape. Also referencing the machine is an untitled pen-and-ink with watercolor by Francis Picabia, a quirky line drawing with washes of blush and heavy black arrows, gears, and levers. Picabia showed at 291 and was a friend of Man Ray, who is also represented in the show with an echo-y 1921 gelatin silver print of ghost-like textiles and ambiguous mechanical forms.