Art Museum show gives American Modernists - and Philly ones - new respect

Detail from Florine Stettheimer’s “Spring Sale at Bendel’s” (1921)

“Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950,” the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new show, throws the viewer right into the 20th-century urban hurly-burly.

The first gallery of the exhibition, which opens Wednesday after several days of members’ previews, contains a beach scene by George Bellows in which the bathers appear to sprawl unconscious amid the Newport dunes, and another by Reginald Marsh, whose Coney Islanders seem to be engaged in either a brawl or an orgy, or perhaps a little bit of both.

Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton show us burlesque shows, and Philadelphia artist George Biddle depicts a scene in a speakeasy in which some prosperous but dodgy types are chatting up an androgynous figure who looks a little bit like Harpo Marx.

So far, it’s all fun, if a little bit predictable. Men in low places ogling female flesh or beating each other up provided a popular subject, one that seemed to sum up the violence of life and the apparent absence of rules in the modern metropolis.

Shopping as blood sport

Amid these paintings, Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921) by Florine Stettheimer comes as a surprise. It eschews the murky colors of the masculine scenes for a palette of pinks and reds and other vibrant accents, suggested by its locale at what has long been one of Manhattan’s swankiest stores.

But if you look at it carefully, you notice that the carriage-trade lady shoppers are almost as desperate and aggressive as the men in the other pictures. One woman appears to have flung herself across a table full of merchandise.

It is hardly a realistic scene. Indeed, it seems to owe something to the scenes of demons and supernatural anguish that Hieronymus Bosch painted around the turn of the 16th century. It’s difficult to tell what is going on in this painting, but it’s lively and a little scary. And it adds a new, unexpected twist to a familiar story.

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“A.D. 1914” (1914) by May Ray, from the “Modern Times” show.

“Modern Times,” is a fairly deep dive into the Art Museum’s holdings from the period it covers. It includes 166 paintings, photographs, sculptures, design objects, and items of clothing.

Jessica Todd Smith, the curator who organized the exhibition, said none of the works were simply moved from permanent display in the American galleries into this show. If you are a regular museumgoer, you have seen some of these works before. Still, there will be many you have not seen.

It is part of a series of shows spotlighting aspects of the permanent collection that are a consequence of the museum’s building program. The active construction makes it difficult to borrow works for special exhibitions. And shows like this, which reveal how many wonderful things are not on display, help make the case for expanding.

Smith says the Art Museum has not done a show examining this period since 1946. That show, which featured the collection of the influential gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, included works by artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and others who still form the core of the museum’s collection in this period.

In O’Keeffe’s wonderful Red and Orange Streak (1919), an abstract outburst of energy and transcendence slashes across a landscape like a hot flame.

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“Red and Orange Streak” (1919) by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Even though this is not a period on which the Art Museum has focused, there have been many exhibitions on artists and movements of the period — at least 15 by my count in greater Philadelphia alone during the last four years. That’s because there has been a lot of new thinking about this period.

We have long thought of modernism as a European phenomenon, even though Europeans acknowledged that modernity was happening more forcefully here. We have stopped being embarrassed about the way artists tried to mix documentation and abstraction, about the naked emotionalism of some works, and the acceptance and celebration of a commercial culture.

This reevaluation has made us look more respectfully at key artists of the period. Stuart Davis, for example, has long been seen as a bridge between French geometric abstraction and American pop. But now we are more likely to look at his large canvas Something on the Eight Ball (1954), one of the centerpieces of the show, and see the work of a great artist.

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“Something on the Eight Ball” (1953-54) by Stuart Davis.

Berenice Abbott’s photograph New York at Night (1932), a long-exposure twilight view taken from the newly completed Empire State Building, shimmers with life and excitement.

Moreover, other artists who were earlier considered marginal are now part of the picture. Stettheimer was once considered eccentric, but now her view feels essential. Dorothea Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday (1942) shows her bare-breasted, standing with a small winged monster with her back to a house full of open doors. It is psychoanalytical, surrealist, and assertively female.

Self-trained Horace Pippin was considered somehow primitive at one time, but his works fit very well into “Modern Times.” The same goes for the outsider-sculptor William Edmondson, whose three heavy little limestone birds have a touch of modern menace.

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“Demolition” (circa 1944) by Dox Thrash.

Dox Thrash, a Philadelphia artist best known for his printmaking and depiction of African American life, is represented here by Demolition (1944), which shows workers tearing apart rowhouses from the back and which contrasts nicely with the slickness and abstraction of some of the other urban views in the show.

Philadelphia artists as a group often feel a bit marginalized by the Art Museum, but this show makes an impressive case for Philadelphia modernism, including such artists as Arthur B. Carles, Benton Spruance, and the brilliant Morton Schamberg. The show celebrates the groundbreaking PSFS Building with a vintage photograph and a monumental lounge chair designed by the building’s architects, George Howe and William Lescaze.

The most covetable piece of furniture in the show, however, is the monumental cherrywood, cubist-inspired record and phonograph cabinet, designed and made in the mid-1930s by Wharton Esherick.

“Modern Times” isn’t definitive, of course. It is one institution’s collection, and a very distinguished one at that.

It is fitting that one of the most charming items in it is a pair of wire sculptures by Alexander Calder of Carl Zigrosser and his wife, Laura.

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“Portrait of Carl Zigrosser” (1928) by Alexander Calder.

Zigrosser was a New York art dealer turned Philadelphia curator who was responsible for the museum’s acquisition of many of the key items here. With his roll of wire, Calder improvised what were, in effect, three-dimensional drawings. They take off into the air and go where they will — free, light, modern, and full of character.

ART EXHIBITION

Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950

  • April 18-Sept. 3 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday with evening hours until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday & Friday. Tickets: 

    Adults, $20; seniors, $18; youth 13-18 and students, $14 (free for children under 13). Information: 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org