A Modernist Who Brought Paris to New York

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The New York Sun

Max Weber (1881-1961) was one of the most talented and versatile of the American modernists associated with the circle of Alfred Stieglitz. Among the first to bring the School of Paris to America, he grafted Parisian ideas onto New York subjects with an ingenuity and kinetic verve evocative of his adopted city. He was also the first American painter to depict scenes of Jewish life.

Today, Weber’s work is hardly visible in the city that ignited his gifts. The Metropolitan rarely displays his Futurist pastel “Slide Lecture at the Metropolitan” (1916); the Jewish Museum holds his Mannerist-inspired “The Talmudists” (1934), and the Whitney has his marvelous Cubist invention “Chinese Restaurant” (1915). You have to hop to Washington, D.C., for a fuller view of Weber at the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Thus the show at Gerald Peters Gallery, which includes some 35 paintings and works on paper ranging from 1908 to 1950, is welcome, if limited in range

Born in Bialystok, Russia, to Orthodox Jewish parents, Weber was brought to Brooklyn when he was 10. He studied art at the Pratt Institute with Arthur Wesley Dow, a pre-eminent teacher of abstract principles of composition. In 1905, he left for Paris, where he enrolled at the Academie Julian, a Mecca for non-French students. He immersed himself in the milieu of the Parisian avant-garde, met Picasso, exhibited in the Salon d’Automne, and studied briefly under Henri Matisse. In Paris, he encountered the work of Cezanne and El Greco – lifelong influences – and discovered the Fauves, drawn to their dramatic color and bold, flat patterns.

Back in New York in 1909, Weber held his first exhibition in the basement of a framing shop. Later that year, Edward Steichen introduced him to Stieglitz, whose Fifth Avenue gallery, 291, was the locus for New York City modernists. Weber’s exhibitions at 291 were poorly received by local critics, and he withdrew from the 1913 Armory Show when some of his submissions were rejected. Gradually, he steered toward expressionist handling of representational images, concentrating on Jewish subjects.

Like Andre Derain, Weber turned away from the analytical rigor of his early immersion in Cubism. Critical opinion is divided on the value of the work of both men after the 1920s. Derain, preoccupied with tradition, was never fully at home with modernity’s disjunctions. Whatever the reason for Weber’s sidestep, it accommodated his era’s fascination with art as a spear carrier for racial identity and gained appreciative notice.

Volkish theorizing and cultural separatism were in the air. W.E.B. DuBois published “The Gift of Black Folk,” in 1924. Duncan Phillips, who began collecting Weber in 1925, dismissed his high-modernist experiments as derivative, preferring the Russo-Judaic themes he deemed “deeply sincere and pious.” His comment on Weber’s Picassoesque “Draped Head” (c. 1923) is instructive: “The tormented soul of a Race speaks through this portrait which carries on the Byzantine and El Greco traditions.”

Phillips assented to derivation where it affirmed his preferences. His reference to race asserts the same reductive condescension that prompted Carl van Vechten, tour guide to the Harlem Renaissance, to encourage black artists to seek a “black aesthetic” and adopt Africanized forms considered theirs by nature. Black artists had rhythm; Jewish ones had kavanah and memories of the shtetl.

Still life remained a staple throughout Weber’s career, making the genre a useful pivot for this exhibition. But this show, however gratifying, limits our grasp of the range of his work by excluding the powerful cityscapes as well as his many figurative paintings and prints. And it omits the Jewish themes that brought Weber his most favorable attention.

Weber’s defection from modernist innovation took its toll on pictorial vigor, evident here in the still lifes. Much wonderful painting is on view but only some of it suggests the imaginative fecundity or structural complexity of his ambitious Cubist works. Weber’s mastery of spatial dislocations is best evident in “Abstract Still Life” (1914), a pastel. “Imaginative Still Life” (1918), a striking arrangement of pattern and color, puts archaic forms to modern purposes. Harmonic rhythms and counterbalances animate “Strewn Apples” (1923).

Weber was a beautiful draftsman. His linear, Cezannesque watercolors are enchanting. “Egyptian Bowl and Apples” (1925), its classical severity of line softened by delicately colored contours, is particularly fine. Later paintings, on the other hand, hover in the middle register of expressionism, placid compositions presented with a nervous brushiness. In centered floral pieces like “Russian Pitcher” (1936) or “Colonial Table” (1942), interest lies in the scumbled surface, not the composition.

“Italian Pitcher” (1921) earns pride of place. The impossible tilt of a table atop the strong verticals of its legs elevates the monumental solidity of a classically shaped white vessel. Its majestic formal approach and deep tonality share much with Derain’s still lifes from around 1912. Weber’s composition was conceived a continent and a decade away, testimony to the strength of his initial affinity with Parisian modernism.

But for the mote in Duncan Phillips’s famously influential eye,Weber’s place in the history of early American modernism might be clearer.

Until May 26 (24 E. 78th Street, 212-628-9760). Prices: $15,000-$350,000.

The New York Sun

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