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Entries in American Modernism (7)


Paul Cadmus: Pushing the Envelope

Paul Cadmus - Gilding the Acrobats - 1935 - Oil and tempera on masonite - 36 3/4 × 18 3/8 in. - Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York, NYMagic Realism is an American style of art with Surrealist overtones. The art is anchored in everyday reality, but contains elements of fantasy and wonder. The term was later also applied to the literary works of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

One of the artists associated with this movement was Paul Cadmus (1904-1999). A native New Yorker, Cadmus began his art studies at age 15, at New York City’s National Academy of Design and then later at the Art Students League. He landed work at an advertising agency, and later traveled with his partner, artist Jared French, to Majorca, in Spain where he created two of his better known paintings, Shore Leave and YMCA Locker Room (both 1933). Upon returning, Cadmus painted for the Public Works of Art project. It was during this time that he created The Fleet’s In! (1934). This was one of a number of works by the artist that were controversial. A work of social satire, it depicts sailors on shore leave and contains elements of prostitution, homoeroticism, and drunkenness. The work infuriated navy officials, and was pulled from an exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 1934. It was not displayed publicly again until 1981.  

The work featured here, Gilding the Acrobats, “reenacts literally the experience of painting the figure with thinly veiled homoeroticism. In an era when homosexual behavior was criminalized and homoerotic imagery was intensely policed, gay artists like Cadmus turned frequently to circus performers and athletes as the few socially permissible subjects that offered the opportunity to lavish attention on the male body.”


Winold Reiss: A Unique Understanding of America

Winold Reiss - Portrait of Langston Hughes - c. 1925 - Pastel on illustration board - 30 1/16 x 21 5/8 in. - National Portrait Gallery - Smithsonian Art Museum - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)German born American artist Winold Reiss (1888- 1953) was primarily known for his portraits of Native Americans and African Americans.

He attended art school in Munich, where he learned to work in the style known as Jugendstil (a German version of Art Nouveau). He left for the United States in 1913 filled with romantic idealism about Native Americans and the vast Western frontier.

In 1924, Reiss was commissioned by Survey Graphic magazine to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (discussed elsewhere on What About Art?) with portraits of the residents of Harlem in New York City. Among his many subjects was the poet, Langston Hughes.

Hughes was a trailblazer, not only for black writers but also for his ability to force his way into mainstream American literature. Although white intellectuals projected their racial fantasies and preconceptions onto African Americans, seeing them as a way of revitalizing a sterile culture by injecting a dose of the "primitive," Hughes focused on a deep commitment to African American history, treating the subject with the framework of modernist poetry.  

Viewing and studying the work of Winold Reiss presents a series of challenges. To understand this remarkable artist, who came to America with a unique sense of what this country was, is to challenge our own preconceptions about what American art is and should be.


Jack Levine: Sharp Social Commentary

Jack Levine - Reconstruction - 1962 - Oil on canvas - 88.9 x 101.6 cm (35 x 40 in.) - Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (click photo for larger image)Jack Levine (1915-2010) was known best for his satirical figural compositions that express sharp social commentary. Born in Boston, and  of Lithuanian descent, Levine grew up in Boston’s South End, an area crowded with European immigrants. The realities of street-life—drunks, prostitutes, politicians, and policemen—left a vivid impression on Levine. They became central to his art, which often satirizes the quirks and corruption of various segments of society.

Levine first trained at the Jewish Welfare Center in Roxbury, MA. He later attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard University. Between 1935-40, he was sometimes part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project.

Levine is typically defined as an American Social Realist. Social Realists created images of the "masses" a term that “encompassed the lower and working classes, labor unionists, and the politically disenfranchised”. American artists became dissatisfied with the French avant-garde and their own isolation from greater society, which inspired them to search for a new vocabulary and a new social importance. Influenced by American Scene Painting and the Ashcan School—these artists believed their content is what made them “modern”.


What is Abstract Art…Really?

Arthur Dove - Golden Storm - 1925 - Oil and metallic paint on plywood panel - 18 9/16 x 20 1/2 in. - The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)Many people don’t understand the difference between Abstract Art and Non-Representational Art—and the terms are often used interchangeably (sometimes erroneously) even by arts professionals.

To “abstract” means to remove from—or highlight—the essentials of something. When applied to the visual arts, this means that the original idea is grounded in something from the “real” word, but presented in a non-realistic way. For example, artist Arthur Dove (1880-1946)—considered the first American abstract painter—provided his own personal interpretation of nature in Golden Storm, an early work of his mature style. Working on his boat, in Huntington Harbor, Long Island, Dove “captured the movement of water, freezing it into abstract, timeless patterns of choppy waves heaving under ominous billowing clouds.” He “abstracted” what he felt was significant in what he actually saw.

Piet Mondrian - Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow - 1930 - oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm - Kunsthaus Zürich (click photo for larger image)Strictly speaking, Non-Representational art refers to works created wholly from the artist’s imagination—and having no foundation is a tangible reality. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), for example, used the simplest combinations of straight lines, right angles, primary colors, and black, white, and gray in a number of his works—developing “an extreme formal purity that embodies the artist’s spiritual belief in a harmonious cosmos.” Although such works are often described as “abstract”— they are more aptly defined as “non-representational”. They are based on an idea—not a tangible reality.

The lines between abstraction and non-representation often do get blurred. It’s not always easy to tell the difference and it can get very confusing. I’ll be delivering a presentation designed to help sort out the distinctions on October 19, 2016, from 7-9 PM, for the Continuing Education program offered by the Chappaqua Central School District. It will be a fun program! You’ll see a number of fascinating works and learn more about abstraction and non-representation.


Neil Welliver

Neil Welliver, Grey Bather - 1967 - Oil on canvas, 62 1/8 x 52 1/8 in. (157.7 x 132.3 cm) - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981American artist Neil Welliver (1929-2005) was known by many as the “Dean of Landscape Painting” as well as a Contemporary Realist. Many of his works were inspire by wood areas close to his home in Maine. However, not all of Welliver’s work falls into the categories of landscape or realism--as see from his Grey Bather painting featured here. Artists go through evolutions!