Seeking ‘American-ness’

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In the first half of the 20th century art movements that originated in Europe were adopted by a number of American artists to tell distinctly American stories. American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, now on view at The Museum of Modern Art, drawn almost entirely from the museum’s holdings, displays over 100 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs that exhibition organizers say contain a search for “American-ness.”

The earliest works in this show are photographs of Bucks County by Charles Sheeler. After encountering Cubism and Futurism during formative trips to France and Italy, Sheeler returned to his native Pennsylvania, making sharp-focus photographs and hard-edged Precisionist paintings of industrial landscapes.

Sheeler’s photography informed his painting and vice-versa. In the 1920s he was hired to make promotional photos for the Ford Motor Company. In “Bleeder Stacks, Ford Plant, Detroit,” 1927, steel pipes, I-beams and elevated walkways are elegantly composed to present a futuristic industrial architecture.


“American Landscape,” Sheeler’s iconic canvas, a highlight of this exhibition, is based on the Ford photographs. Here industrial silos, machinery, factory buildings and a smokestack are simplified into crisp geometric shapes while a cloudy sky and rippling river are soft-edged. The only figure in the painting is a tiny worker by the train tracks, easy to miss, making the active plant strangely quiet. A Ford logo can be seen on the side of a train car.

Other scenes of an increasingly industrialized American landscape are Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” 1925, Charles Burchfield’s gouache “Railroad Gantry,” 1920, Louis Lozowick’s lithograph, “Crane,” 1928, and Joseph Stella’s “Factories,” 1918.

During these years, New York-based photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz exhibited paintings by Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Gaston Lachaise, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and Stieglitz’s wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. All these artists have pieces in this show and intimate portraits by Stieglitz of his circle of friends are also on display.


A whimsical bronze figure, “Man in the Open Air,” by sculptor Elie Nadelman, was exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1915. Modeled into smooth, rounded shapes, the figure’s legs, torso, head and even derby hat have become one continuous, sinuous form.

Armin Landeck and Martin Lewis are two of the lesser-known artists here, both showing accomplished New York City-scape drypoint prints. In “The Glow of the City,” 1929, Lewis depicts a lanky figure on her fire escape gazing at the night sky, with clotheslines connecting tenements and the Chanin Builing on East 42nd Street glowing in the distance. Lewis’ skill as a printmaker was such that Edward Hopper himself, who has five prints in this exhibition, turned to him for technical etching advice.

American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe will have a long run at MoMA, up until late January 2014. Opening next month, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, will showcase some of René Magritte’s most acclaimed Surrealist paintings. And starting on September 9 MoMA’s Rockefeller Sculpture Garden will open to the public in the mornings, free of charge, a treat for those in midtown, now able to take their morning coffee in the marble-paved sculpture garden that is a testament to the elegance of modern design. This is an autumn to look forward to at MoMA.


American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, on view through January 26, 2014 at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY, 212-708-9431,

More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at

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