To See as Artists See: American Art from The Phillips Collection

February 3 - May 6, 2012



 

Wall panel texts from the exhibition

 

Introductory Text

 

"Our most enthusiastic purpose will be to reveal the richness of the art created in our United States . . ."
- Duncan Phillips, 1921

The Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1921, a decade before the Museum of Modern Art (est. 1929) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (est. 1931) opened their doors in New York. From its inception, The Phillips Collection has championed the very best American art and artists. Its in-depth holdings of American paintings are broad in scope, yet cannot be characterized as either encyclopedic or strictly historical. Rather, The Phillips Collection is a rich assembly of independent-minded American artists, most of whom were alive and actively exhibiting when their work entered the museum's collection. Many of the seventy-seven artists included in this exhibition, in fact, became acquaintances and good friends with the museum's founder, Duncan Phillips (1866-1966), who often acquired their work in large numbers.

A well-regarded critic, in addition to being a collector and museum director, Phillips firmly believed that we benefit as viewers by learning to see as true artists see. In his extensive critical writings, Phillips made clear that "artists of creative originality and of sincere independence," were those he was looking for, not those whose work was coldly intellectual or imitative of popular trends.

To See as Artists See: American Art from The Phillips Collection is divided into ten thematic sections, which aim to reveal the breadth of America's modernist vision from approximately 1850 to 1960. The exhibition begins with the great heroes of American art of the late nineteenth century whose work set the course for modern art in the United States. It concludes with a grand display by the Abstract Expressionists, whose efforts to create a new visual language in the 1940s turned American art into a global force.

 

Thematic Texts

 

Romanticism and Realism

"The artist should fear to become the slave of detail. He should strive to express his thought and not the surface of it."
- Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1905

From its beginnings in the eighteenth century, the predominant aesthetic of American art was one of realism tinged with romanticism. By the second half of the nineteenth century, young American painters sought alternatives to the sentimentality of American genre painting and to the grand theatricality and microscopic realism of the Hudson River School, which treated the landscape of the new world as a divine gift to humanity. In the work of independent-minded artists such as George Inness, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins, among others, American art came of age.

Influenced by the broad suggestiveness of the French Barbizon style, Inness found inspiration in the arcadian landscape of Italy. Ryder is revered for the subjective aesthetic of his moonlit imagery and powerfully expressive and romantic vision of nature. Homer's canvases enshrine a heroic mythology of sailors, fishermen, and their kinfolk pitted against the brutal power of wind and sea. Eakins, by contrast, reveled in a blunt scientific realism gained from photography and anatomy studies. Considered America's "modern" old masters, these artists had a vision of nature and the inner psychology of the individual that ultimately shaped the emergence of a modernist sensibility in the United States. A gifted painter who "saw" with scientific detachment, Eakins's introspective portraits of friends and colleagues, captured in moments of reverie and reflection, are the precursors to the boredom and ennui evidenced in modernist portraits of the early twentieth century.

 

Impressionism

"It must not be assumed that American Impressionism and French Impressionism are identical. The American painter accepted the spirit, not the letter of the new doctrine."
- Christian Brinton, art critic, 1916

For some American artists, trained in the academies of Paris and Munich, exposure to French Impressionism in the 1880s was transformative. Like their French counterparts, they left the studio and began painting outdoors in a variety of weather conditions and working without preliminary sketches. They adopted a brighter palette and substituted color for shadows. They applied pure unmixed pigment on the canvas in dabs and broken brushstrokes to create a sense -- an impression -- of reflected light, air, and atmosphere. They borrowed ideas from photography and Asian art, including cropping, asymmetry, and multiple viewpoints. Even so, the American Impressionists never completely lost their foundation in the realist tradition, always keeping three-dimensional volume in their forms.

The pioneers of American Impressionism taught their aesthetic to their younger colleagues, using not only the classroom, but outdoor summer art sessions held in various locales throughout New England, as well as Europe. With this new generation, American Impressionism became more diverse and its influence lasted well into the second decade of the twentieth century.

The effort to infuse American painting with a French Impressionist style gave a fresh interpretation to countryside and city. Intimate landscape views, rooted primarily in the suburban New England countryside, became the norm, as did scenes of leisure activities in parks and at the beach, along with urban views that captured the genteel character of the city's upscale neighborhoods.

 

Forces in Nature

"The true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms -- Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain . . . to sort of re-true himself up, recharge the battery."
- John Marin

Nature and the land hold a special place in American art. The countryside continued to seduce American artists in the twentieth century, as it had in the nineteenth. The twentieth-century American painter, however, sought to re-interpret nature in a bold, expressive manner, capturing a personal response to elements seen and unseen, often in styles adapted from those of European contemporaries. Although most American painters who came of age after the turn of the century were trained as realists in the academies of New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, many of them chose to ignore the city, its inhabitants, and industrialization. Instead, they experienced the modernist impulse as a utopian longing for nature experienced in isolation.

Dissatisfied with Impressionism's emphasis on intimate, domesticated landscape views rendered in soft, atmospheric light, a younger generation of American artists combined the heroic realism of Winslow Homer and the romantic abstraction of Albert Pinkham Ryder into an unsentimental modernism. Remote northern areas of New England and New York continued to attract young American artists of independent spirit like Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, and Harold Weston, just as it had a previous generation that included Homer. In the rugged landscapes and harsh climate of these regions, artists found an escape from the confines of civilization and experienced the extremes of nature's grandeur and beauty.

 

Nature and Abstraction

"Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."
- Georgia O'Keeffe, 1922

After World War I, artists and writers struggled to define the country's modern identity. In the booming postwar economy of the 1920s, some were fascinated by the technology of the machine age, while others turned inward in search of an authentically American art rooted in nature and connected to nineteenth-century Transcendentalism. Augustus Vincent Tack, for example, described his abstract decorations as "compositions of form and colors based on essential rhythms" in nature.

The search for equivalents to different kinds of sensory experience was essential to a select group of American artists between the wars that included Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Their expressive symbolism grew from a shared belief that the experience of the natural world was a spiritual one in which nature's "inner truth" or essence could be made visible in abstract "equivalents," in which color, form, and line are divorced from representation.

Their subject matter, however seemingly abstract, was firmly grounded in observable, objective reality. John Marin, for instance, followed Delacroix's dictum that nature must be viewed through a temperament, writing that "it is this 'moving of me' that I try to express ... so that its expression will bring me back under the spell." Getting the "feel of a particular place," as O'Keeffe described it, was key to these painters who sought to convey the essence of nature and the American landscape in their art.

 

Modern Life

"The vision and expression of one day will not do for the next. Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday. And so, the struggle is everlasting."
- Robert Henri

At the end of the nineteenth century, the urbanization of America challenged the very identity of a nation that at its founding envisioned itself to be an agrarian society. While the American Impressionists chose to ignore the industrialization that surrounded them, the seamy darkness of modern city life appealed to a younger generation of painters. Led by the charismatic Robert Henri, a passionate realist in the tradition of Thomas Eakins, these dissidents made it their mission to depict subjects of everyday life in the rough working-class neighborhoods of New York's Lower East Side, as opposed to the genteel world of Fifth Avenue.

Henri and his fellow urban realists, among them George Luks and John Sloan, newspaper artists who looked at the city and its inhabitants with the eyes of reporters, chose their subject matter from everyday, mainstream experience, often from the street itself: urchins, theatrical performers, working-class men and women, or friends and family. Labeled "apostles of the ugly," their subject matter eventually earned them the nickname of the "Ashcan School." Emphasizing contemporary subjects as revelatory of the modern urban experience, the Ashcan artists also used rapid brushwork to express both the subject's mood and the artist's inner emotions.

 

The City

"The whole city is alive; buildings, people, all are alive; and the more they move me the more I feel them to be alive. . . . And so I try to express graphically what a great city is doing."
- John Marin, 1913

As a renewed sense of nationalism settled over the United States at the end of World War I, the city became one of America's most potent symbols. Brash, young, and electrified, urban America was dominated by modern construction, its bridges and skyscrapers emblematic of the nation's advanced technology and engineering. As the city replaced wilderness and countryside as the locus for myth-making, artists began to explore the modern industrialized landscape in cities small and large, with Manhattan's streets and skyline a primary focus.

Urban realism, understood as everyday life on the city streets, had been promoted before World War I by the Ashcan artists Robert Henri, John Sloan, and their colleagues. It lived on between the wars, particularly in the art of Edward Hopper, whose modernism, always grounded in representation, was infused with psychological insight into the anxiety and alienation of the twentieth century.

Other modern painters, influenced by European Cubism and Futurism, also looked to the city and America's industrialization as subject matter. John Marin, for example, used graphic means to express New York's buildings and inhabitants being pushed and pulled by the rhythm and energy of the city. Others, like Charles Sheeler, were labeled "Precisionists" because of their hard-edged style, preference for flat color shapes, cool colors, and invisible brushstrokes. They found inspiration in the geometry of the city in a hybrid style that eliminated both people and nature.

 

Memory and Identity

"The age old controversy, environment versus inheritance, is not within my province . . . but what is it that makes for vitalization and progress if not new sources of inspiration from other civilizations."
- Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Millions of immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth century, remaking the racial and ethnic character of the country. Between 1910 and 1940, America's demography was further reshaped from within during the Great Migration, when African Americans moved from the rural South to cities of the North in search of jobs, better housing, and freedom from oppression. This population shift gave birth to a generation of artists emboldened to give voice to their community experience. Duncan Phillips, an early proponent of "a fusion of various sensitivities, a unification of differences," celebrated the assimilation of various aesthetic ideas into one national heritage known as "American."

In the 1920s and 1930s representational paintings of the American Scene, which were understood to be about the experience of the people, became increasingly popular, and American art began to reflect the country's ethnic multiplicity. Artists from all over Europe, as well as from Latin America and Asia, invigorated the country's aesthetic diversity. Overlooked by mainstream critics were artists of color who captured aspects of contemporary American life in pictures. Phillips was among the few who valued and collected their versions of the American Scene as an essential part of American life.

 

Legacy of Cubism

"Cubism . . . enabled the artists to liberate themselves from the confinements of representation and to launch forth into the deep and perilous waters of the abstract."
- Duncan Phillips, 1926

Cubism, which developed in France around 1907, burst onto the American scene in 1913 at the Armory Show, an exhibition in New York and Chicago of nearly 1,300 contemporary American and European paintings organized and selected by a group of progressive American artists, including Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn. The French Cubist paintings and other European works, particularly those by Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, proved to be the most controversial part of the exhibition. Conservative American critics and a public accustomed to representational pictures found the analytic Cubism of Braque and Picasso anarchic and disturbing. Headlines in the New York press proclaimed "Cubist Art Is Here, As Clear As Mud."

While critics ridiculed the newest European art, a small band of America's first generation of abstract artists, many of whom had spent time in Europe, embraced it, absorbing the lessons of Cubism into their painting. By the 1920s, elements of Cubist style appeared in the work of increasing numbers of American modernists. There was an effort among some artists to Americanize Cubism into an original abstract style. John Marin and Karl Knaths, for example, developed personal Cubist-related styles to interpret their environment, while Stuart Davis's Cubism derived from American utilitarian objects, rather than nature. For others, like George L. K. Morris and Ilya Bolotowsky, Cubism led to an Americanized abstract art based on pure geometric abstraction.

 

Degrees of Abstraction

"I think I am a realist. . . . I make what I see. It's only the problem of seeing it. . . . The universe is real but you can't see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it."
- Alexander Calder, 1962

By the end of the 1930s, American artists, like their European counterparts, put increasing emphasis on abstraction as a universal visual language of pure form and color. Moreover, many American abstract painters also looked to philosophy, mathematics, science, psychology, religion, and music to stimulate their experiments with visual reality and propel their art into new arenas.

Morris Graves, for example, was steeped in Far Eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism and Taoism and believed in the subconscious as the locus of creativity. Karl Knaths had strongly held beliefs about the spiritual qualities of the woodlands and wildlife that were nurtured by his reading of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Jackson Pollock was interested in the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung and gradually transformed his figurative language into non-representational form in response to ideas about the unconscious. Theodoros Stamos was interested in ancient rituals and Greek mythological themes that supplied metaphors for the postwar era.

The sculpture of Alexander Calder, which incorporates pure relationships of line, space, color, shape, time, and motion, appears to be non-objective, but is actually derived from nature. Marsden Hartley's expressionist late canvases rely on heightened color, simplified forms, abstract patterning, and interlocking shapes to create drama and emotion, while Milton Avery's pared-down style fuses abstraction and color with shape and spatial relationships. His large-scale late canvases are at once non-objective and representational.

 

Abstract Expressionism

"We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."
- Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, 1943

New York City became the heart of avant-garde artistic activity and the art capital of the world with the influx of European émigrés before World War II. From this international confluence of artists, Abstract Expressionism emerged during the 1940s and 1950s; the first truly international style manifested in the United States, it turned American art into a global force.

Reacting against 1930s regionalist art, America's avant-garde painters of the 1940s sought a new visual language that was abstract and inherently American. Affected by the political turmoil of World War II, these young painters believed the contemporary artist faced "a crisis of subject matter." Their search for subject matter became a search for meaning.

Well versed in the classical past, these ambitious young artists absorbed contemporary international styles like European Surrealism and abstraction, while also looking to non-Western sources for inspiration. They immersed themselves in Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology's emphasis on the universal experience of the collective unconscious, as well as in anthropological studies that treated myths as windows into the individual's relationship with the universe. Firmly believing in the creative subconscious, the Abstract Expressionists looked into their own psyches for inspiration. Thinking in paint was not about making abstractions or representations, but about giving concrete expression to thoughts and feelings.

 

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