Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 2, 2009 with permission of the Neuberger Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Neuberger Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Adler Collection

by William H. Gerdts

 

The collection of graphic works of art formed by Susan and Herbert Adler has been created over only the last few years. The Adlers have in this short time achieved a collection of remarkably high aesthetic standards, in part through innate good taste, in part from discerning judgment developed from intense study and examination, and in part through a concentration upon a particular area of artistic achievement and a consistent point of view adopted by the two collectors.

The Adler Collection has eschewed paintings in oil and works of monumental scale, concentrating on smaller, significant but intimate artistic statements within the graphic media: drawings, particularly, and pastels and watercolors. All the works are by American artists, and all were created during the last one hundred years. The collection has a consistently humanistic emphasis, a concern with men and women as human and emotional entities. Almost all the drawings and watercolors in this exhibition emphasize the figure; a scant half-dozen are figureless landscapes or cityscapes, and there is only one still life.

Given the chronological range of the collection, this bias is not surprising; with the gradual demise of the Hudson River School, and with the great influence of French academic training on late nineteenth-century American artists, the human form became an object of intense scrutiny in American art. The early twentieth-century realists in America, the artists of the Ashcan School, explored the place of man and woman within an urban environment, as did their heirs, the artists of the Fourteenth Street School and other realists of the 1920s and 1930s. But the Adler Collection is no mere reflection in little of the general trends of American art of the last hundred years. Many of the major artists of American Impressionism are here ignored, as are most of the twentieth-century avant-garde who sought formalist aesthetic solutions along the lines of European Cubism, Futurism, and allied movements. So too, the impersonal, often mechanical emphasis of such Precisionists as Charles Sheeler is absent, with one powerful exception, the crisp rendering of machinery by Louis Lozowick.

The humanistic tone of the Adler Collection is evident from its earliest works through the latest drawing in the collection, Sante Graziani's Biglen Brothers #2 (1970). This last is a reprise of a painting of a hundred years earlier by that most humanistic of American late nineteenth-century artists, Thomas Eakins. Thus, in a most fitting way, the collection at present -- for certainly it will expand both inwardly and outwardly -- neatly encompasses its century-long range.

The earliest drawing in the Adler Collection is its only still life, a superb and exceedingly rare drawing by that master of trompe l'oeil, William Michael Harnett. From the late 1870s comes Winslow Homer's Over the Garden Wall. Homer had not yet exchanged his delicate country lasses for his more heroic fisherfolk of the 1880s. The pencil line is rendered in a nervous, lively manner, endowing the figure with a gentle vitality. The girl looks away from the viewer, a pose that typifies Homer's early avoidance of individual personality. Here it also emphasizes a longing and a subdued state of repression, as the diminutive figure is hemmed in by the high wall over which she looks, a rustic counterpart to much nineteenth-century Germanic iconographic treatment of young women.

The Venetian watercolor by Childe Hassam is a sparkling, extremely delicate work. Hassam had not yet entered fully into the Impressionist aesthetic, although the seeds of Impressionism are evident here in the exploration of Venetian light and color. The work also reminds us of the strong attraction Venice held for artists of all Western nations, including many Americans, in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

The greatest concentration of drawings in the Adler Collection is in the period from about 1890 to World War 1. The beautiful, extremely rare figure drawing by Mary Cassatt is a preliminary investigation of the theme of modern womanhood which was to find ultimate expression in Cassatt's largest work, the monumental mural for the Women's Building at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, now unfortunately lost. It is significant that among the American Impressionists, the Adler Collection would include a drawing by this disciple of Edgar Degas. Like her mentor, Cassatt did not forsake line and form for color and light; her overriding concern with firm line and near-oriental design is clear in this drawing, which is similar to the oriental-inspired acquatints that she was producing at this time.

Of the American Impressionists, Thomas Dewing was the member of that academy of American Impressionism, the Ten American Artists, most totally devoted to the figure. His delicate, shimmering oils and marvelously ethereal pastels express the regal remoteness of woman, a common theme of the period. His Lady with Flowers reminds us of the tremendous revival of the pastel medium in the later nineteenth century. The blurred outlines and shimmering, delicate coloristic effects of the pastel chalks helped prepare the way for the acceptance of Impressionism in the oil medium.

The Eight emerged as a significant band of urban realists in their exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in 1908. As figurative realism is central to the Adler Collection, so the art of these men is well represented here. This group, which acknowledged Robert Henri as its leader, included several young men who were illustrators for the Philadelphia Press: William Glackens, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Adlers's drawings by Glackens and Sloan are illustrative works.

A quick, vibrant style, expressing liveliness and spontaneity, was intrinsic in their reportorial manner, which eschewed refinement and sentiment. The two drawings by Sloan exhibit markedly different aesthetics. The earlier one is grounded in the flat contrasting patterns of black and white and the whiplash outlines of Art Nouveau; the later work, like the Glackens, has a more sketchy and direct illustrative manner. Calligraphic immediacy -- in which vitality of line directly communicates a similar vitality to the figurative subject -- is also central to Robert Henri's drawing technique, whether in the pathetic Blind Musician or in the more elegant Portrait-Head of a Woman. In Shinn's pastel Reclining Female, the alternation between heavy charcoal outline and open silhouette, between long flowing lines and nervous jagged ones, lends a sense of vitality. This work is an interesting contrast to the more refined use of pastel chalks by Dewing in Lady with Flowers. Though the drawings may be contemporaneous (Dewing did not date his works) and though both are similar in subject and technique, they tellingly contrast the graphic interpretations of the Impressionist and the Ashcan generations.

The monotype, the impressed oil "print," was a medium in which Edgar Degas pioneered. It was adopted by a number of American artists, and Maurice Prendergast created the most significant body of monotypes of any American artist. Like The Opera Cloak, these early works by Prendergast usually depict a single, elegant young woman; the blurring impress of the monotype is translated into an atmospheric "veil." Arthur B. Davies's idealism is seen here in Prancing Nude, one of his refined but animated nudes. The inclusion of Prendergast and Davies in the Eight demonstrates the lack of total conformity and allegiance to urban realism among the group. The one pure landscape painter among the Eight, Ernest Lawson, is not represented in the Adler Collection; also missing, at least for the present, is the work of George Luks. Thus, qualitative and sympathetic subject similarities here bring together two artists otherwise identified in quite opposite historical context -- Hale a traditionalist of nineteenth-century heritage, Cadmus an artist of our own time.

A few of the drawings in the Adler Collection reflect more radical, modernist aesthetic concerns. Significantly, these figurative drawings were produced by artists working abroad rather than in the United States. They include the two handsome, stylized women by Elie Nadelman and the draped figure by Maurice Sterne. While Sterne's work is less radical and somewhat more naturalistic than that of Nadelman, all three drawings are composed of intersecting curves and countercurves, abstracted from the basic rhythms of the female form. Sterne flattens some lines and introduces horizontal "resting" lines; therefore his figure is far more tranquil than the dynamic figures of Nadelman. It is significant that the example of Joseph Stella's draftsmanship in this collection is one of his tremendously strong drawings of Pittsburgh workers, rather than one of his investigations of Italian Futurist concepts.

A second period emphasized in the Adler Collection, both in number and quality of drawings, is the decade of the 1920s. American art of that period, as indeed American culture and political direction, took a turn toward conservatism and isolationism. It reflected a new classicism, a movement away from the modernism of the previous decades. This is reflected in the two beautiful drawings by George Bellows, in which his earlier raw vigor has been replaced by a sense of containment and balance.

A comparison at once instructive and qualitatively rich may be made between the startlingly similar works by Paul Cadmus and Lilian Hale using one of the earliest pictures by the former and a late work by a neglected member of the Impressionist generation. Both drawings are sensitive interpretations of old age and exude a knowing calm and tranquility. Cadmus is here seen before he turned to the nude subject matter which characterizes his better-known work, while Hale exhibits the elegant draftsmanship which is just beginning to be appreciated. A continuation of this more classical aspect of American art into the next decade can be seen in Leon Kroll's sensitive Head of a Young Girl

The strongest group of nonfigurative works dates from the mid-1920s. All investigate a more European-oriented aesthetic, and all are tied to the urban, industrial world. These include Oscar Bluernners Venus, John Marin's watercolor Downtown, New York (both works relatively rich in color for this collection), and Louis Lozowicks Machine Ornament #4, a strikingly dramatic drawing of industrial machinery.

The conservatism of the 1930s found one expression in the art of the Midwestern Regionalists, led by Thomas Hart Benton. These artists urged a return to national themes and genuinely American subjects and values, which they believed were preserved in the Midwest, an area less tainted by European influences than the vulnerable Eastern cities. In Rodeo, Benton's cowboys populate such a native scene, though the stylized, elongated figures and repeated angularities of form reveal his exposure to European modernism.

But the 1930s in the Adler Collection is dominated by three drawings by Isabel Bishop, a major artist of the Fourteenth Street School. The urban realism of the Eight influenced Bishop, but her works are more personal and more infused with sentiment than those of the earlier artists. Her draftsmanship is wiry and fine, expressively entrapping the young woman in a melancholic environment. Less gentle and more powerful are the urban figures of Reginald Marsh, a truer heir to Glackens and Sloan in his portrayal of the seedy but dynamic and sometimes voluptuous New York urban scene.

A more expressive and sometimes satiric element gradually found its way into American draftsmanship, in part because of the influx of European-trained artists. Drawings which often involve distortions of form and a shorthand iconography can be found in the Adler Collection as early as George Grosz's 1924 satirical treatment of the German middle-class. This attitude reemerges in a lighter vein, sometimes a humorous one, twenty years later in the work of Robert Gwathmey. A conscious distortion of form, and even a knowing primitivism, dominates the treatment of the figure in Philip Evergood's The Machine (1960), but here the human figure is literally pushed to one side and almost subsumed by the powerful, uncompromising forms of industry. The sleek abstractions of Lozowicks industrial machinery of a quarter of a century earlier are here transformed into menacing oppressors. The Precisionist belief in the salutary dynamics and beauty of industry has been transformed into a view of mechanization as oppressive and antihumanitarian. A more positive image of the industrial worker is represented by Ben Shahn's powerful Carpenter of the early 1940s.

1960 was a very good year for American draftsmanship, as viewed in the Adler Collection. In addition to the work of Evergood, there is Robert Vickrey's powerful, impassive Military Clown, who fills the sheet with his large form, his rounded skull repeated in the simplified hemisphere of his corporeal shape, the same curvilinear rhythms echoed both in the sinuous moustache and the broad swathe of ribbons across his chest. The Vickrey drawing offers a strong contrast to Charles White's Dawn, also of 1960, in which a sad, sensitive, luminous head emerges from a penumbra, facing the light of a hopeful future. White may be the finest black artist of our time -- certainly the finest draftsman -- who has devoted his art to expressing the history and aspirations of his race. Chronologically, the collection ends with this trio of great drawings and the apt postscript of Sante Graziani's homage to Thomas Eakins, uniting the past and present in American realist art pertinent to both the underlying aesthetic and ideology of the Adler Collection.

As we have seen, the Adler Collection is composed in large part of realistic figurative drawings. These usually depict single figures, more often female than male. Works depicting single figures are usually studies of form; those showing grouped figures suggest action and anecdote. Most of the multifigure drawings are of groups of men and tend to emphasize activity; the grouped female figures are more passive and contemplative. Urban activities and environments dominate the collection, both in the works of the Ashcan School artists and in those of later artists, such as Bishop, Marsh, Evergood, and Shahn. It is noteworthy that even among the few "landscapes," the urban and industrial environment dominates, as in the drawings and watercolors by Bluemner, Marin, and Lozowick.

Many of the figures who people the Adler Collection drawings are members of the working class, some at toil, some at leisure. They may be powerful, monumental workers such as those depicted by Shahn and Stella, or the oppressed, such as the figures in the Evergood drawing. They may be shopworkers, such as the women depicted by Isabel Bishop, or perhaps women of easy virtue, as appear in the drawings by Pascin and Marsh. The emotions of the figures in the drawings tend to be subdued. They are seldom joyous or happy -- only one of the Gwathmey figures is an exception to this. A note of boredom occasionally appears, as in the figures by Marsh and especially Bishop. The tragic element is not prominent but does appear in some of the works by Henri, Sloan, and White.

The general mood suggested by the figures in these drawings tends to be more passive than active, from the country girl portrayed by Homer through the elegantly gowned ladies by Dewing and Bellows. Expressivity is to be found primarily through form and gesture and, of course, through the use of line itself. Strong individual characterizations do not dominate the collection, though there are exceptions to this: the sensitive depictions of old age by Cadmus and Hale, the quietly moving women by Isabel Bishop, and the strong black woman by Charles White. But in general, the emphasis is upon figurative expressivity, rather than any approach to portrait formalities, though the lovely drawing by Leon Kroll may be excepted.

Most of these drawings present figures from everyday life, which are seen, even in a shorthand manner, in a realist context. Thus, a more formalized approach to draftsmanship, as reflected in the presentation of the nude, is rarely to be found except in the stylized drawings by Nadelman and the more poetic interpretation of the nude by Arthur B. Davies. Yet, given the realist and usually urban context, it is surprising how many of the figures are extremely elegant -- most of the earlier drawings more predictably, but even many of the twentieth-century figures, such as those by Shinn, Sloan, and Bellows as well as the more European-oriented figures by Nadelman and Sterne.

The artists of these drawings are traditionally identified in an American context of realism, and yet surprisingly few of the drawings bespeak a truly native origin. Perhaps only the drawings of Benton, Gwathmey, and, strangely, Steinberg are unabashedly American in recognizable subject matter as, in a somewhat Surrealist and Pop way, is that by Graziani, referring as it does to the nation's artistic heritage.

It is of interest to look into the backgrounds of the artists represented in this collection. Most were American-born, but a number came from Europe. Only one, Joseph Stella from Italy, was of Latin origin. Two came to this country from Germany (Grosz and Bluemner) and a surprising number from Eastern Europe (Nadelman from Poland, Steinberg from Rumania, Pascin from Bulgaria, Shahn from Lithuania, and Sterne from Latvia). We are again reminded of the constant immigrant enrichment of American culture that has underlain American artistic development from its beginnings.

Among the art movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Adler drawings belong firmly in the stylistic tradition of realism. Only the earlier work by John Sloan suggests a kinship with Art Nouveau, while those by Nadelman and Sterne relate to the development of Art Deco aesthetic. A number of other drawings bear a relationship to French modernist developments -- those by Prendergast, Bluemner, and Marin -- but only the last two were part of the avant-garde circle of Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. The Lozowick drawing emerges from the Precisionist aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s. But these are only a small part of the collection; the Ashcan, Regionalist, and Fourteenth Street schools are in the forefront.

Most of the artists represented in the Adler Collection studied in the most popular training centers for American artists. In New York City, the traditional National Academy attracted Homer, Kroll, Sterne, Lozowick, and Shahn. The newer Art Students League helped train Davies, Stella, and Marin and later Marsh, Cadmus, Bishop, Evergood, and Vickrey The Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia developed that nucleus of the Eight -- Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Shinn, as well as Harnett before them, and Marin and Gwathmey after. But from the 1870s until World War I American artists almost invariably felt the need to supplement their American training in Paris, above all at the Academie Julian, where Dewing and Hassam, Henri and Prendergast, Kroll, Benton, and Evergood studied. George Bellows's training was somewhat unusual in its native variety; he studied with Henri, with Kenneth Hayes Miller, the champion of the urbanism of the Fourteenth Street School, and with Hardesty Maratta at the New York School of Art.

Many of the artists represented here became significant teachers themselves. Kroll returned to teach at the National Academy; many others taught at the Art Students League. Henri was at the League as well as at the New York School of Art, and Sloan, Bellows, Marsh, and Grosz taught at the Art Students League as well. The Skowhegan School in Maine became an important training center for young artists, where such figures as Isabel Bishop have been successful and significant teachers.

The draftsman's expressive motivation is inextricably tied to the choice of the specific medium in which the design is conceived. It is perhaps not surprising that the finest and most important of the early drawings in this collection were worked in pencil to create a precise yet delicate figurative imagery, examples are the pastoral figure by Winslow Homer and the not dissimilar group of women by Mary Cassatt. In the twentieth century, seeking the same controlled elegance of outline, Paul Cadmus also chose the pencil medium.

A stronger, more rapid, and expressive line is possible in pen and ink, and this medium was used by Henri in his Blind Musician and later by Isabel Bishop. Nadelman found in the ink outline the basis for strong linear abstract rhythms. Yet, black ink washes could be expanded into flat, dramatic forms which served John Sloan and later Louis Lozowick. The combination of outline and floating washes of gray inks offer a luminosity and freedom in the drawings of Reginald Marsh and of Thomas Hart Benton.

The charcoal medium gives a strong, gritty surface and dramatic chiarascuro contrast and was much favored by the realist movement in the third quarter of the nineteenth century - by Gustave Courbet in France and by William Morris Hunt and later Winslow Homer in America. In the Adler Collection only John Sloan has exploited charcoal's strong dramatic values. Both Lilian Hale and Leon Kroll have utilized charcoal in its most delicate and sensitive tones. The rich, glowing blacks and smooth sheen of black crayon are well used by George Bellows, and this medium is also handled dramatically by Robert Henri and by Maurice Sterne.

Color appears quite sparingly among the works in the Adler Collection. Notable exceptions are the watercolors of Hassam, Bluemner, Marin, Marsh, Pascin, and Shahn. Graziani adds brilliant color pencil to the monochrome black-and-white of Eakins's original design. Among the figure drawings, color is subtle and muted in the pastel chalks of Dewing, Shinn, and Davies and somewhat more intense in the later work by Shahn. The closest approach to oil painting is found in the monotype by Prendergast, and the large tempera drawing by Vickrey. But even these last works fit comfortably into a collection of drawings and watercolors.

This is a personal collection, not of large presentation pictures but of small works, sometimes aesthetic memoranda which communicate the essence of an artist's idea or emotion directly to the collectors, and here, through their generosity, to the viewers of the present exhibition.

William H. Gerdts Professor of Art Brooklyn College
City University of New York

 

About the author

William H. Gerdts is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Dr. Gerdts is the author of over twenty-five books on American art. An expert in American Impressionism, he is also well known for his work on nineteenth-century American still-life painting.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 2, 2009, with permission of the Neuberger Museum of Art. The permission was granted to TFAO on January 29, 2009. Professor Gerdts' essay pertains to American Drawings & Watercolors from the Collection of Susan and Herbert Adler, which was on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art, College at Purchase State University of New York, Purchase, NY, November 22, 1975 through January 8, 1976.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Pat Magnani, Curator of the Neuberger Museum of Art, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.



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