Scholarship on the American modernist tradition tends to focus on artists working in New York, Philadelphia and Paris during the early 1900s. However, Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest––a landmark exhibition currently on view at the Massillon Museum in Ohio––proves that the trend toward experimentation and advanced aesthetic thinking was actually much broader, permeating the vision of many artists with links to the Midwest.
As Christine Fowler Shearer, curator of the exhibition, states in the foreword to the catalogue, the Massillon Museum “often takes the risk to tackle subjects, uncover artists, and provide new insights into topics that are often overlooked.” With this in mind, she has assembled approximately 70 paintings by Midwestern artists––among them Ivan Albright, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Alice Schille and William Zorach––who abandoned traditional styles such as Impressionism and Realism in favor of progressive strategies relative to form and color. The show features loans from private and public collections, as well as three works from Spanierman Gallery’s current inventory of paintings: Pink Lady and Europa, by Carl Holty (1900-1973), and Mountain Landscape, by William S. Schwartz (1896-1977).
Holty’s inclusion in this exciting exhibition isn’t surprising. In 1926, after studying art in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York, he attended Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich and developed a special interest in Cubism. His fascination with advanced painting was heightened in 1930, when he relocated to Paris and joined the revolutionary artist’s group, Abstraction-Création. Returning to New York in 1935, Holty emerged as a major force in the modernist movement, promoting abstraction through his membership in American Abstract Artists. He continued to maintain his connection with the Midwest by making periodic visits to Wisconsin, where he disseminated the precepts of modernism through lectures given in Milwaukee. The two Holtys featured in the Massillon Museum’s exhibition stand out for their vivid, non-naturalistic palettes and the fragmented, cubist-inspired shapes that seem to float across the canvas, merging and mingling on the picture plane to create lively surface animation.
While Holty’s career trajectory took him from the Midwest to Europe and then finally to New York, Schwartz spent his entire career in Chicago. Born in Russia, he received his formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he stood out among his peers for his artistic individuality. As a student, Schwartz did, indeed, go “against the grain,” shocking his classmates by his anti-academic stance and earning a reputation as a local radical. Taking his cue from styles such as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and the artistic philosophies of Wassily Kandinsky, he evolved his own brand of modernism. As revealed in Mountain Landscape, Schwartz was a master at transforming everyday subjects into powerful, boldly designed compositions, using expressive colors to convey his inner feelings and interpreting his motifs in terms of the simplified forms we associate with modern art.
Against the Grain is accompanied by a 122-page catalogue with essays by Ms. Shearer and Dr. William H. Robinson, Curator of Modern European Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The show opened at the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, on May 15th and will be on view until September 12th. It will then travel to the Riffe Gallery in Columbus (November 4, 2010-January 9, 2011), the Southern Ohio Museum (March 5-May 29,2011) in Portsmouth, and the Museum of Wisconsin Art (July 20-October 2, 2011) in West Bend, Wisconsin.
Also view the exhibition American Modernism at Spanierman Gallery.