America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper

Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology; Oxford, UK: March 23 – July 22, 2018

COOL MODERNISM examines famous painters and photographers of the 1920s and ‘30s with early works by Georgia O’Keeffe; photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston; and cityscapes by Edward Hopper. It also displays the pioneers of modern American art whose work is less well-known in the UK, particularly Charles Demuth (1883–1935) and Charles Sheeler (1883–1965). On show will be major pieces by the so-called precisionist artists. These include Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928, from the Met), the painting Robert Hughes described as the ‘one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it.’ Made in 1928 and dedicated to the poet William Carlos Williams, the Figure 5, was one of a series of symbolist ‘poster-portraits’ which Demuth made of friends and fellow artists. Consisting of an enormous, stylized ‘5’ that occupies the entire picture plane and painted in bold colours on wallboard, the painting evokes new styles of advertising that were multiplying in American cities in the 1920s – a remarkable anticipation of Pop art later in the century. Another important loan is Sheeler’s Americana (1931, from the Met) which has never been lent outside the USA. The painting shows a traditional American domestic scene with Shaker furniture and folk objects arranged in a near abstract composition – a blend of modernist forms with a historical subject. Other rare loans include a painting by E.E. Cummings (1894–1962), better known for his poetry; and Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) (c. 1920, NGA Washington DC) by Edward Steichen (1879–1973) who destroyed nearly all his paintings before dedicating himself to photography. The Sunflower was exhibited in Paris shortly after it was painted in 1922 and has not been seen in Europe since then.

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