Lee Krasner (1908-1984)
© 2011 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Originally designed to house Amon G. Carter’s collection of Remington and Russell paintings of the American West, the Amon Carter Museum might be more known as the “yee-ha art art museum” than as the “WTF!!! art museum.” American Vanguards, an exhibition focusing on a well known group of American artists between WWI and WWII, blends representational pieces with work that anticipates that classic of WTF art movements: Abstract Expressionism.
The first half of the 20th century was a really crazy time in the art world. Picasso was inventing new art movements every time he seduced a new woman, literally. In the U.S., art started to become more focused on societies’ problems more than its previous ‘land of opportunity’ display of American prosperity. America wouldn’t become the art capital of the world until after WWII, until then Paris was the hub of the art world – the real vanguard.
Often critics are credited with naming art movements (Impressionism & Cubism ) but it isn’t just sour grapes that I read the exhibition intro about the self-named Three Musketeers (John Graham, Ashile Gorky and Stuart Davis) with eyebrow raised. When a fourth member was added to the group (Willem de Kooning) it was lamely changed to the Four Musketeers – cue other eyebrow.
When I think art museum exhibition, I think museum plaques telling you what you are supposed to learn or this is what you are supposed to see. That isn’t the case with American Vanguards at the Amon Carter. This is more of an interesting ‘hey, check this out exhibition’ than a heavy ‘here’s why you should care’ exhibition. On display are a lot of the important European art movements of the day with these American artists adding their own innovations. Everybody knows Salvador Dali’s melting clocks -- pretty moody stuff. There is a whole series of these surrealist themes all smashed up by incredibly bright colors. (See Jan Matulka’s“Composition.”)
If you are familiar with the artistic movements piling up on top of each other in the first half of the 20th century, you are going to see a lot of art that looks awfully familiar. But you will also see a lot of original twists. For example, sand helps create an unusual texture in many of the paintings in the second gallery.
The way American Vanguards is organized is kind of tricky. The exhibition isn’t telling a story or digging deep into a period or a school. On the plus side, there really is something for everyone in American Vanguards. On the minus side, because the artists and the artistic movements are all mixed together, it is easy to walk through the exhibit and then wonder – uh, what did I see?
It’s not a bad idea to wander through the exhibition twice. Focus on an artist, a style, even color that interests you (Graham and Davis seem to prefer a lighter palette while de Kooning and Levy prefer a darker palette). Even though this group of artists were a part of the same circle, it is much easier to see what one artist is working through, than it is to get your head around the evolution of the whole group.
Too many artists is a problem with American Vanguards. But a bigger problem is not closing the loop by displaying the mature styles these artists evolved to – their own post-Musketeer styles are hinted at, but unfortunately aren’t displayed in this exhibition.
American Vanguards is on display through August 19, but my advice is to hussle over to Fort Worth as soon as possible. The Amon Carter is always free. It is open from 10-5 Tuesday through Saturday and is open until 8 on Thursdays.