‘Delightful and full of promise’: an exhibition of modernity aimed at hope | modernity

aAlthough the dawn of the twentieth century was a time of war, epidemic, and social upheaval, it also brought with it an undeniable sense of hope and opportunity that was central to the burgeoning modernist art of the time. Wise new aesthetics were unleashed on the world, and the artists really believed in the revolutionary potential of their work. It is this unparalleled possibility, openness, and optimism that, at the dawn of a new era, seeks to direct museum visitors to the new exhibition of Modernist art at the Whitney Museum.

“There’s this sense of enthusiasm that registers at work,” said longtime Whitney researcher and producer Barbara Haskell, who organized the show. “It would seem appropriate to exhibit this work at a time when we are dealing with the grim reality of the present. I hope to show the audience the array of quality and methods, and the myriad ways in which Americans have translated what was happening in Europe into American vernacular.”

In keeping with Haskell’s goals, the show is a riot of colour, moods, and patterns, giving a sense of powerful experience at work as the artists were exuding a distinctly American modernity. From neoclassical fantasy to sensual abstractions, radiant landscapes, transcendental visions, Cubist street scenes and even a vintage set of the world’s dominant Tarot deck, At the Dawn of a New Age offers an astonishing array of art. This abundance is tamed somewhat by carefully arranging them in three galleries that offer visitors opportunities to pace themselves and elicit connections between pieces in a given room.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918. Photo: Robert Gerhard and Dennis Y Suspetsen/Whitney Museum of American Art

Haskell wanted her show to offer a provocative contrast to the currently ongoing Whitney Biennale. Thus, she combed the museum’s archives not only to celebrate modernist standard-bearers such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Aaron Douglas but also to display artists – often women and/or people of color – who had been largely erased from the modernist movement. Roughly half of the work in At the Dawn of a New Age has been in storage at Whitney for 30 to 50 years, and many of the pieces on display are new collectibles intended to address the gaps in Whitney’s collections that Haskell identified while pulling together her gallery. “The history of this period tends to be told by a handful of artists, while the fact that many artists were working at such a high level,” Haskell said. “This deprived us of enthusiasm and a sense of possibility at work. Bringing back these works really conveys the mood of the time.”

Among the less well-known artists who deserve their due in “At the Dawn of a New Era” are Marguerite Zurach, Blanche Lazel, Yoon Ji, Isami Doi and Henrietta Schur. Coming from all over the world, and from all over the United States, they were drawn to the modernist centers of New York and Paris by art that spoke to them with a sense of modernity and promise. Channeling their creative impulses in this movement, they created a work that is simultaneously modernist and yet remains true to their origins and the marginalized social spaces they inhabited.

Zorach’s contribution to the show, a silk-painted landscape titled Landscape with Figures, brings to mind Seurat on a Sunday afternoon on La Grande Jatte, for the sense of gathering and enjoyment that both convey. But Zorach stands on its own as an exotic and compelling work: in the curved and flexed postures of the two pigeons there is a Classical, Neo-Greek, and the piece’s central tree—made up of radiant red trunk and lime green leaves—contributes to the painting’s mundane feel. As the action slowly imbibes your consciousness, it begins to feel as if these enigmatic characters know secrets of pleasure and relaxation that few will penetrate.

Henrietta Shore, The Path of Life, c.  1923.
Henrietta Shore, The Path of Life, c. 1923. Photo: Dennis Y Sospetsen/Whitney Museum of American Art

Unlike the busy landscapes of Zorach, Yun Gee’s street scene is made up of a rounded corner, giving the piece a lopsided feel. Composed of large portions of yellow, blue, red and brown, the work owes to Cubism and conveys a sense of the irregularity of modern life reminiscent of John dos Passos. The loneliness and even desperation that each of Street Scene’s busy human characters carry feels purposeful, possibly stemming from the racism Gee experienced as a Chinese immigrant living and creating in San Francisco.

From the pools and city views, one arrives at the massive Henrietta Shore flower, titled Trail of Life. Remembering the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, with whom she was shown (sometimes the favorite of the two), it shows a simplified, abstract flower curved with sensual shapes. Work is among Haskell’s favorite things on the show. “It’s almost the beginning of a flower. Shore applied multiple layers of paint, so only the color glows. I love the way artists of this period approach universal ideas about the interconnectedness of humans and nature, and Trail describes the idea of ​​nature as a kind of container — if not something spiritual. At least the internal communication.

Oscar Plumner, Old Canal Port, 1914
Oscar Plumner, Old Canal Port, 1914. Photo: Robert Gerhard and Dennis Y Suspetsen/Whitney Museum of American Art

This inner bonding and interconnectedness is abundantly clear in two haunting woodcuts by Isami Doi, a child of Japanese immigrants who grew up in Hawaii before pursuing art in Paris and New York. By carefully assembling diverse textures and shapes, the woodblocks find both majestic and serene at the same time but also bursting with the energy of the natural world. The moonlight shows us the appearance of two figures tied at the arm as they walk at night through the leaves and toward the distant houses. In the way the shapes and their surroundings bend to one another, the connection between man and nature is strong. Doi’s The Stream presents a woman with descending eyes standing pensive in front of a fence, behind which a stream of water flows. One yearns to know what exactly comprises the stream of thoughts flowing through this woman’s mind.

At a time when the world often feels very heavy, and when many are still considering whether to re-engage fully with life, At the Dawn of a New Age provides a powerful reminder of exactly why we flock to museums. This successful display of American dynamism and diversity is a welcome invitation to leave the screens behind and enjoy the presence of something transformative. “My very innocent goal is to hope that people will come to the show and love the work,” Haskell said. “It is so much fun and so full of promise. When I go up to the showrooms, I get this feeling of exhilaration.”