World-class Modernism Exhibition at The Philadelphia Museum of Art
By Bob Moore
The works of art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s Modern Times exhibition, covering a period of artistic upheaval from 1910 to 1950, are seldom unexpected or unfamiliar. The modernist trend which they embody is deeply etched into our cultural unconscious, the background or context to everything that has happened since in the art world. Marcel DuChamp‘s nude descending her staircase, Georgia O’Keefe‘s succulent flowers, Marsden Hartley‘s colorful World War I compositions: these were the visual soil that Americans like myself grew up in.
The City of Ambition, 1910 (negative); c. 1930 (print), by Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1871 – 1944. Gelatin silver print, image/sheet/mount: 4 1/4 x 3 3/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949-18-47.
Walking through the 160-some pieces in the exhibition is like paging through the Modern American Art section of an extensive History of Art, with few outright surprises.
What is surprising (at least to me) in this exhibition was how many of these works are owned outright by the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘ (PMA). Not on loan from some internationally-recognized museum, but property of the PMA. Ours, all ours. This highlights a side of the exhibit not about Art but about Acquisitions. PMA’s Chief Executive Officer, Timothy Rub, in a foreword to the associated book, notes that “It was during the 1940s that the PMA’s holding of modern European and American art were established through several important gifts…” including donations by Albert E. Gallatin, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Steiglitz, and Walter and Louise Arensburg (not Annanberg, another Philadelphia philanthropist who bequeathed his collection instead to the rival Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
There are a few works in the show not owned (yet) by the PMA: the book identifies one statue lent by a Museum Trustee and some fourteen paintings (including Charles Demuth‘s sizzling Jazz lent by another Trustee, with a note hinting at their eventual acquisition by the Museum.
The Modern Times exhibition curator was Jessica Todd Smith. In an essay in the associated book, she tells how the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) pioneered Modern Art in Philadelphia. But an ill-fated one-month PAFA exhibition of works from the collection of Albert C. Barnes in 1923 caused a ridiculous public outcry (the work was “trash,” and “the creations of a disintegrating mind,” said reviewers; think of peasants with torches and pitchforks).
Smith says the “critical reaction to the Barnes collection in 1923 scared PAFA’s board from presenting any further exhibitions of modern art until the 1950s…” The controversy also led to Barnes’ alienation from the Philadelphia art scene and all that followed. See Philadelphia Inquirer, “Barnes at the Pennsylvania Academy: A scandal in 1923“, May 4, 2012, by much-missed art critic Ed Sozanski.
The PMA then “picked up the modernist gauntlet,” Smith writes, under museum director Fiske Kimball. Smith says other figures in PMA’s acquisition of American Modern Art included R. Sturgis Ingersoll and Carl Zigrosser.
In a footnote 41 to her essay, Smith notes that some work was excluded from the exhibition, including “work that wholeheartedly embraces abstraction to the exclusion of any hints of figuration, leaving out most geometric abstraction and, on the more painterly end of the spectrum, Abstract Expressionism…” She also regretted that the museum had holes in its collections, including Social Realism, Regionalism, Native American, and Central and South American art.
In footnote 25, Smith lists the various art clubs that kept Modern Art alive in Philadelphia, including the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Philadelphia Art Alliance — but most notably not including the Plastic Club, an artists’ club which has been around since 1897.
The drama of acquisition politics and finance aside, however, the work in the Modern Times show is a world-class exhibition put on single-handedly by our local museum. Don’t miss it!
MODERN TIMES: American Art 1910 – 1950, Philadelphia Museum of Art April 18-September 3, 2018
(Associated Book) AMERICAN MODERNISM: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Jessica Todd Smith
Thank you to Bob Moore for the content of this post.
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