“American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,” is a show in search of a purpose. The exhibit, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art last week and runs through January 2014, gathers together some 115 paintings, photographs, and sculptural works by American artists between 1915 and 1950, a year before the 9th Street Art Exhibition inaugurated the age of abstract expressionism and New York School hegemony. Had it been given more careful curatorial consideration the exhibition could have been one of the most important of the year. Disappointingly, it falls short.
“American Modern” features some outstanding work, almost all of it drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. Striking paintings by Stuart Davis, Max Weber, and Joseph Stella sit alongside gorgeous prints by Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Paul Strand, and Charles Sheeler (whose “White Barn, Buckstown, Pennsylvania,” a masterwork of black and white photography, is the best of the bunch). Also included are weaker efforts from George Bellows, Peter Blume and John Marin. Not surprisingly, ample room is given to Georgia O’Keeffe—including her stunning watercolor, “Evening Star No. III”—and Edward Hopper, a pair that should ensure the exhibit’s box office success throughout the fall. Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” better known as the Bates Mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will draw the tourist hordes on its own.
All the more remarkable, then, that MoMA’s curators were unable to establish a center of gravity to ground their American showcase. The near total absence of text throughout the exhibit suggests they didn’t even try. Instead, visitors are paraded past one chunk of work after another—here are the O’Keeffes, there the Marsden Hartleys; Jacob Lawrence’s work sits in this corner, Charles Burchfield’s is hung in that one across the room. While there is some interplay between the various works as they have been arranged, it becomes clear pretty quickly that “American Modern” has neither rhythm nor anchor.