Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

"Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition"

by Karen Lucic

 



 

This display attracted the attention of many reviewers. Most enthused over the material, which seemed to them both intrinsically American and relevant to contemporary aesthetic values. One wrote, "The portrait of a woman loaned by Charles Sheeler with its simple directness and its absolute simplification might have been painted today."[55] Helen Appleton Read noted a formal relationship between the folk objects and the works produced by the artists who owned them:

[I]t occurred to some of our young artists that if the art fashion of the day must choose the primitive and naive, why shouldn't the American artist use his own primitives? .. [It] is in a way a conscious imitation of the unconscious flowering of our ancestors' art spirit.

... A group of our younger painters believe that the Monroe Doctrine holds in art as well as in furniture and politics. They have poked about in antique shops, old saloons and chop houses and brought back quaint pictures and statues. They are now serving as decorations and inspirations in the studios of many of them. Why bother about French Gothic or the frescos of Santa Croce when we have primitive material at hand that has the humor and tang of our native soil...

Charles Sheeler who is a collector of early American art and who in his own art reflects the simplicity and fineness of design inherent in it. .. loans two early American portraits. These are amazingly up to date and have the austerity and simplicity of a Derain or a Picasso. [56]

In this article, Read articulates a primary motive for the presentation of this material: to define an American "primitive" tradition equal to past art in Europe, which also exhibits the same aesthetic qualities as contemporary art abroad. And simultaneously (if incongruously), she asserts the uniquely indigenous character of this tradition.

The reviews of the Club exhibition establish that by 1924, American modernists had discovered in folk art an answer to Robert Coady's exhortations of 1917. American modernism claimed an independent identity through this construction of a native nonacademic lineage. But most commentators seemed unaware of a certain irony: European art remained their standard of comparison. Furthermore, one reviewer, Virgil Barker, soberly cautioned American artists against too great a reliance on folk art:

Our own day is in some respects, in its cosmopolitanism and its consequent lack of homogeneity, worse off than that earlier time; but the ways of artistic salvation for us does not lie along that of antiquarianism. This needs to be affirmed just now because there is more than a hint of such a spirit among some of the younger painters of today, They have run away to the attic to play and are having a glorious masquerade. [57]

For this observer, American modernists were in danger of becoming overly dependent on their folk sources.

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