America: Painting a Nation

November 23, 2013
Henry Inman
No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa Chief 1832–1833
oil on canvas, 77.5 x 65.4 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Gift of the 2008 Collectors Committee
M.2008.58
Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA
Henry Inman No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa Chief 1832–1833 oil on canvas, 77.5 x 65.4 cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art Gift of the 2008 Collectors Committee M.2008.58 Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA

“Thus in the beginning,” wrote the philosopher, John Locke in 1689, “all the world was America.” He was referring to a primitive state of social organisation being rapidly improved by British colonialism. Nowadays Locke’s words seem just as true, but it is because America has colonised the rest of the world.

For much of the past century what we call ‘popular culture’ was synonymous with American culture. We were more familiar with cowboys and Indians than with local frontier stories. Our favourite movie stars and pop singers were American. Television spoke to us, day and night, with an American accent. In cultural terms the United States was the supreme imperial power, and we its willing vassals.

The 21st century will be different, but perhaps not radically different. For all China’s economic might we have not become fanatically devoted to Canto pop or films about the Long March. The Chinese themselves are probably more excited by Lady Gaga or the latest Hollywood action flick than by any homegrown product.
Nigeria produces more films every year than Hollywood, but not many African movies make it to the Hoyts.

One of the privileges of being an imperial cultural power is the lopsided relationship the United States enjoys with almost every other nation. While the rest of the world is eager to send its cultural riches to America, the Americans can choose what crumbs they scatter around the provinces. Paris or London may command top quality works of art, but quite another standard applies for Seoul, Daejeon – and Sydney.

America: Painting a Nation at the Art Gallery of NSW is one of the most minor touring exhibitions ever to be billed as a Christmas season ‘blockbuster’. Drawn from the collections of four prominent art museums in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia the show was originally put together for two venues in South Korea, under the title, Art Across America.

With a great void looming in his end-of-year program, AGNSW director Michael Brand stuck his arm in the air and was able to grab the exhibition on its way home. Repackaged and very slightly altered, the show is being marketed with the valiant claim that it is “the first historical survey of American painting to be held in Australia.” The American gallery directors’ introduction refers to it as “the first major historical survey…”

Such flurries of hyperbole are reminiscent of the National Gallery of Australia, which always has to find some special statistic to wow potential visitors. The most ridiculous was Ron Radford’s boast that the NGA has “the sixth finest collection of Indian art outside the subcontinent.” It now appears the gallery may have the world’s finest collection of looted Indian artefacts.

The AGNSW is still treading warily when it comes to overselling an exhibition, but viewers should be aware that America: Painting a Nation contains very few pictures by internationally recognised masters and scarcely a work that might be called ‘iconic’. Instead, we get average paintings by big name artists, and some curious pieces by many who will be unknown to Australian audiences.

If these unknowns produced original masterpieces one could hardly complain, but most of them work within highly familiar genres. The subject matter may be local but the styles and approaches are derivative of European art. It is very similar to what was happening in Australian art during the 19th century. A local equivalent would be a touring exhibition with works by J.H. Carse, Haughton Forrest, Knud Bull, Thomas Clark, and other mid-range talents, with maybe two pictures each by Streeton and Roberts.

In theory this could still be an interesting show, even though it doesn’t satisfy popular expectations. The same might be said about America: Painting a Nation. If one comes to this show with diminished expectations there is much to enjoy. Anybody who goes along looking for marvels will be disappointed.

There is nothing especially attractive about an “historical survey” if it means the entire story of American painting is to be told in a procession of less than 90 pictures. To succeed with such a project would require individual works of exceptional quality.

It is only four years since a show from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, called American Impressionism and Realism was seen at the Queensland Art Gallery. That exhibition was criticised for having too many minor pieces but it was a far more coherent proposition than the present event. By focusing on a particular period the QAG show allowed us a better glimpse of some key artists. Childe Hassam (1859-1935), for instance, who is arguably the leading American Impressionist, was represented by six paintings. At the AGNSW he has only one – a blue-tinted nocturne called Rainy midnight (late 1890s). This is an attractive picture but it gives no idea of the range of Hassam’s work.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) the only American painter to have exhibited with the French Impressionists was represented by six works in the 2009 show, but only two in Sydney. A woman and girl driving (1881) shows her debt to Degas, while Mother about to wash her sleepy child (1880) is said to be her first painting on the ‘mother and child’ theme. It certainly looks like a first attempt, being a clumsy bit of painting that distorts the proportions of the figures.

It’s not enough to include any old thing by Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) simply because they are women. It may be a blind spot, but I’ve never found much of interest in O’Keeffe’s banal pictures of large flowers and animal skulls, and the examples included in this show do nothing to alter that opinion. She is, however, the only artist to have as many as three works. Does this imply she is the most important American artist?

Georgia O'Keeffe Horse's skull with pink rose,193, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation 1994.159.1 © 2012 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1931, Horse’s skull with pink rose

This is merely one example of many mystifying inclusions and omissions. Any ‘historical’ survey that sought to give an accurate picture of American painting, one would have to include at least one canvas by Willem De Kooning. Instead we have nothing by this artist, but two by his Abstract Expressionist colleague, Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74), a figure of more modest abilities. There is one small drip painting by Jackson Pollock, and a biomorphic abstraction by Mark Rothko dating from 1944, before he developed his distinctive late style. There is an abstraction by west coast artist, Helen Lundeberg, but nothing by her more significant contemporary, Richard Diebenkorn.

Jackson Pollock No 22 1950 enamel on Masonite, 56.4 x 56.4 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art The Albert M Greenfield and Elizabeth M Greenfield Collection 1974 1974-178-41 © Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS, Licensed by Viscopy

Jackson Pollock, 1950, No 22

It’s tedious to keep talking about works that aren’t in the show, but it says something significant about the selection when De Kooning can be omitted but minor figures such as Yun Gee and Miki Hakagawa are included, probably as examples of American artists of Asian origins. This may have been intended as a way of showing Korean audiences that America values its Asian connection. I’m not sure, however, that the Koreans would be impressed by the inclusion of small works by Chinese and Japanese artists. There is a slightly patronising assumption that all Asian cultures can identify with one another.

The AGNSW acted to forestall another glaring omission by dropping in a painting by Edward Hopper, borrowed from Richmond, Virginia, where Michael Brand used to be director. House at dusk (1935) is unremarkable by Hopper’s standards, but it contains themes to which he would return repeatedly, including the view into a window as glimpsed by a passer-by.

For much of this show one sees American artists working in the shadow of their European counterparts. One exception is John Singleton Copley, who was a class act, even in those early portraits made before he began a successful career in London. Severin Rosen, however, has produced an excellent approximation of a Dutch still life, while artists such as Thomas Waterman Wood, John George Brown, Allen Smith Jr. and others, give us American versions of Victorian genre painting. Two of the most original works are Frederic Remington’s The Herd Boy (1905) and N.C. Wyeth’s Moving Camp (1908), which provide an elegiac view of the life of the Indians.

It is no surprise that the stand-out pictures in this show come from artists such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), although there is a strong sequence that includes portraits by Cecilia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s likeness of his mother, made in wry emulation of Whistler’s famous maternal portrait. Whistler himself, as is so often the case, is disappointing. His Arrangement in black (c.1883) has none of the depth of Chase’s picture. It seems dull alongside the surprising vivacity of Robert Henri’s Edna (1915).

If I had to choose a favourite from this ramshackle selection, I’d find it hard to go past Sargent’s Portrait of Mrs. Edward Davis and her son Livingston Davis (1890). This was hardly more than another day at the office for a prolific society portraitist, but Sargent has captured the personalities of his subjects with incredible precision. One can read Mrs. Davis’s character in her forthright, intelligent face, while her son has the slightly distracted expression typical of his age. The black and white costumes are created with a few deft sweeps of the brush.

Although he was American by nationality, Sargent was the most Europeanised of artists, who spent no more than eight years of his life in the United States. His work is so free from the earnest provincial strivings that afflict most of the artists in this show that he seems to belong not simply to another continent but to another species.

America: Painting a Nation
Art Gallery of NSW, until 9 February 2014.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 23 November, 2013