Two new exhibits, From Man Ray to O’Keeffe: American Modernism at the Norton and At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism, opened Saturday at the Norton Museum of Art and will run through July 16.
The companion exhibits, organized thematically, explore the various ways American artists employed abstract styles to convey their experiences of modern life. With works on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York as well as from the Norton’s own collection, the exhibit highlights works produced between 1900 and 1930 by both well-known modernists as well as those artists who are less known.
Dawn of a New Age is an attempt to remedy the historical record, in that some of the artists, including women, people of color and non-New York-centric artists, who “were left out of the historical equation,” said Ellen Roberts, senior curator of American art at the Norton Museum.
“These artists all expand the canon of American modernism,” she says. “It’s so exciting to have this work here and great to exhibit these two shows side by side, so they can talk to each other.”
The exhibit includes paintings, sculpture, works on paper and photography.
According to Roberts, early modernists in the United States came of age during a period of great optimism, new manufacturing plants and new methods of communication and transportation, all reflected in modern artists adopting new and experimental ways of looking at the world, prioritizing emotional experience and harmonious design.
“Modernism has always been a significant focus for the Norton,” says Ghislain d’Humières, director of the Museum.
“Drawing from the Norton’s extensive holdings of American art alongside work from the Whitney, we can present a fuller, richer history of the movement,” he said in a prepared statement. “Our founder, Ralph Norton, became deeply fascinated by modernism in the final years of his life, gifting era-defining works to the Museum.”
“In the subsequent decades, we have taken up the mantle of ensuring our collection most accurately embodies the spirit and diversity of American creativity at this time, as reflected by the works on view from the Norton’s own collection.”
With many of the works by well-known artists such as Man Ray, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, (there are seven of her works on display), others are by recognizably less-known artists such as Patrick Henry Bruce, Chiura Obata, Agnes Pelton and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet.
A movement at the time tried to depict sounds visually, called synesthesia. Included are examples of these works, including O’Keefe’s Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, from 1918, and Noise Number 13, by the poet and painter E.E. Cummings, as well as Joseph Stella’s portrayal of the opera Der Rosenkavalier, which captures the sound and energy of Richard Strauss’s landmark 1911 opera.
“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things that I had no words for,” O’Keefe said at the time.
Still lifes, nature and landscape paintings, such as The Chromatic Exercise, or Old Canal Port, by German-born Oscar Bluemner, an artist largely overlooked during his lifetime, but now regarded as a significant influence on the development of American modernism, are part of the exhibit.
A number of husband-and-wife works are included in the show, including Rebecca Salsbury’s 1933 reverse print on glass, Black Vase and Pink Rose. She was married to photographer Paul Strand, whose photographs such as his 1930 Wire Wheel and 1931 St. Francis Church also are part of the show.
Other couples in the show are William and Marguerite Zorach, Arthur Dore and Helen Torr and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. William Zorach’s 1913 Woods in Autumn complements his wife’s 1913 oil painting, Bathers.
A number of African-American artists are included in the canon including Henry Bannarn, Helen Torr and Beulah Ecton Woodard, part of the Norton’s collection. On loan from the Whitney is African Dancer, a 1933 work by the African-American sculptor Richmond Barthé, active during the Harlem Renaissance.
Also on loan from the Whitney is Gaston Lachaise’s sculpture Dolphin Fountain, and the sculptures of Polish-born Elie Nadelman, including his allegorical figures depicted in the bronze Spring and his two bronze Standing Female Figures from 1925-26.
Exploring the dichotomy between what’s real and unreal, dreams and reality are paintings by Marsden Hartley from his early and strongest period with Painting Number 5, and Forms Abstracted.
Lesser known but just as talented, the artist Florine Stettheimer had no interest in selling her paintings and wanted them destroyed upon her death. Lucky for us, her 1931 oil painting titled, Sun, depicting an ethereal background and brightly colored flowers, is part of the show.
Also lesser known, James Daugherty and his 1914 pen-and-ink and watercolor painting Three Base Hit, captures the movement and energy of the modern world alongside the more well-known Max Weber’s 1915 Chinese Restaurant.
A centerpiece of the Norton collection is Stuart Davis’s New York Mural, a painting he created as a submission for a new mural for Rockefeller Center during the Great Depression.
Somewhat abstract and tongue-in-cheek, the painting depicts iconography of New York City including the Empire State Building, political symbols of the time such as former New York governor and 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith’s bowler hat, bananas representing the song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” and a tiger head with a crooked tail representing Tammny Hall and the crooked politicians that dominated New York City politics at that time. A moon in the top left corner is drinking champagne, a possible dig at Prohibition.
“These two exhibitions side-by-side will give visitors the opportunity to see fantastic examples of work by artists that are very well-known, but also to see work by a host of immensely talented artists who are not now household names,” says Roberts.
“Viewers will be able to come away with a more complex, diverse and accurate picture of early twentieth-century American modernism,” she says.
From Man Ray to O’Keeffe: American Modernism at the Norton and At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism, run through July 16. Also on display are Symbolic Messages in Chinese Animal Paintings, through June 4 and New York Vanguard: Promised Gifts from Stephen and Madeline Anbinder, through June 11. The Norton Museum of Art is located at 1450 S Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. (561) 832-5196, or visit norton.org.