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Visual Art
Arts and Entertainment Friday, Jun. 14, 2013 6 years ago

The Ringling's "American Moderns" exhibit surveys expressive diversity

by: Robin Punsalan

Another astounding traveling exhibit is now on display at The Ringling, opening today (Friday, June 14) and running until September 8. American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell was organized by the Brooklyn Museum. Fifty-seven works of art include 53 paintings and four sculptures by leading American artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Max Weber, Milton Avery, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and more.

The 20th century greeted a time of tumultuous change in our economy, our national landscape and technology. Naturally, these artists responded with their own unique style and creative voices, and each is quite extraordinary in variance. Tones, expression, shapes and attitudes about country during these years were groundbreaking in the formation of a national identity. Many American artists began to study abroad in Europe. Embracing artists such as Picasso and Cézanne, they came home to adopt European techniques into their work in response to the rapid growth of industry.

Collectively, this exhibit astounded me with its diversity. While some artists harnessed the excitement from a mounting skyline or the cosmpolitan zest that came with it, others showcased the unease. Matthew McLendon, curator of modern and contemporary art at The Ringling, stated the 20th century was also known as the "Age of Anxiety." Alongside excitement for the new, artist Max Weber addressed in his paintings the fatigue and discomfort in the American at this time. The oil paintings of Jack Levine take a dark and satirical turn after the artist returned from service in World War II. Levine brilliantly exposes self-importance in his garish colors and a "boredom" with an institution he viewed as an undemocratic "caste system." His characters create ache with swift, dark use of lines that pronounce crows' feet or the birth of a scowl.

Just when the heaviness sets in, Georgia O'Keeffe revitalizes and lifts you with colors that take my breath away. One feels buoyed up by such beauty, which she mastered like no other. Security and warmth envelop you as you set eyes on the sweetness in a Grandma Moses painting. We're assured we'll be okay. Where would we be without the delight and joy in a Norman Rockwell? Our sense of Americana restores something so endearing that we feel in a Rockwell today.

Six thematic sections in the exhibit showcase this variety (Cubist Experiments, The Still Life Revisited, Nature Essentialized, Modern Structures, Engaging Characters and Americana).

Stanton Macdonald-Wright's Synchromy No. 3 is a wonderful example of Cubism, capturing both the fragemtation felt but also the burst of vibrancy during this time. The dynamic red especially pronounces that kinetic nature and machine-like rhythm. The angles and shapes almost force this color and the red certainly produces an assertion of an almost aggressive nature. Yet there's a nice balance with the positioning of the forest green, which eased how I digested the painting.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright (American, 1890-1973).

Synchromy No. 3, 1917.

Oil on canvas, 39x38 in. (99.0 x96.5 cm)

Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.24.

I've never witnessed a Georgia O'Keeffe painting live until the day of this exhibit's press preview. Owning two books on her, which I still have yet to read, I feel ashamed for neglecting them. The morning prior to seeing American Moderns, I was not feeling well---more like I'd been hit by a truck. As soon as I set eyes on O'Keeffe's 2 Yellow Leaves, any discomfort in my body or spirit was immediately rinsed away. The refreshing quality is elevated by nuances of color and expressive intensity close up in viewing the detailing of the leaves' edges. O'Keeffe sought escape in nature from places like New York City and the urbanization during this time of growth. This work exclaims how nature restores us.

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887-1986).

2 Yellow Leaves (Yellow Leaves), 1928.

Oil on canvas, 40x30 1/8 in. (101.6 x 76.5 cm).

Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 87.136.6

When Max Weber first encountered the works of Cézanne in 1906, he was immediately gripped by the artist's style and began incorporating it into his own. A profile of close friend Abraham Walkowitz (1850-1965) is an example of his overt homage to Cézanne. The subdued palette and patchy brushstrokes in the portrait of this young man harness the new modernism of the time, focusing on the interior change of the country's transformation in one's own identity.

Max Weber (American, born in Russia, 1881-1661).

Abraham Walkowitz, 1907.

Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 20 1/4 in. (64.1 x51.4 cm), Framed: 30 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. (77.5 x 64.8 cm)

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Abraham Walkowitz, 44.65.

This is an extraordinary exhibit you certainly do not want to miss. For further information on this exhibit and others, please visit

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