Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art And The Politics Of Cultural Diplomacy

Photo: Peter Jacobs

Famous as an organizer of the Armory Show of 1913, Walt Kuhn, who made his name with colorful portraits of circus performers, periodically painted views of trees he observed in California, Maine or New York, as exemplified by “Pine at Five O’Clock,” 1945. Auburn University curator Dennis Harper called it a “contemplative work by a former rebel,” adding, “The forceful, confident strokes that build the towering central form in ‘Pine Tree at Five O’Clock’ mirror Kuhn’s treatment of the muscular and lithe performers who were his more common focus.” Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. —Peter Jacobs photo

ATHENS, GA. — In 1946, amid the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Department of State embarked on an innovative program of cultural diplomacy. At the heart of this initiative was a project called “Advancing American Art.”

The project called for assembling Modernist paintings by contemporary American artists that would travel through Europe, Latin America and Asia. The objective was to combat Communism, demonstrate to the world the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in a democracy and document America’s artistic coming of age.

The controversy this initiative generated, its shutdown in the face of multifaceted opposition in the United States and the ultimate fate of works in the touring exhibitions form the subject of a fascinating look back in “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy,” on view at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia through April 20. The host museum organized the exhibition with the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University and Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. It has already been seen at those two sites, plus Indiana University Art Museum. Each organizing institution has sizable holdings of works from “Advancing American Art” that are on view, and other museums and private collectors loaned works to recreate the original exhibitions.

In 1946, J. LeRoy Davidson, a State Department visual arts specialist, initiated the organization of a set of touring exhibitions to demonstrate the diversity of American Modern art and the power of democracy to nourish freedom of expression. He employed a keen eye and daring spirit in selecting works for inclusion in the program.

The exhibitions originally consisted of 79 oil paintings paired with smaller collections of watercolors and works on paper, making a total of 107 works. The artists represented ran the gamut from the famous to the virtually unknown, offering a cross section of works in the development of American Modernism.

The traveling exhibition got off to a good start, drawing positive press in the United States and Europe. For a time it seemed that art could serve as a means of cultural diplomacy, building bridges between people of diverse nations and healing divisions created by World War II.

Shortly after “Advancing American Art” began its tours, however, controversy broke out in American media, government forums and public discourse. The high-minded experiment in cultural diplomacy soon fell prey to political maneuverings and intellectual posturing as to what was an appropriate image for the United States to project around the world.

For many in and out of Congress, Modern art conveyed a negative view of America. Critics blasted the paintings chosen for the program, and labeled participating artists as subversive and un-American. Clearly, a number of painters had left-leaning political views, and the collection, by design, largely avoided traditional representational styles. Congressmen investigated the backgrounds of the artists, a number of whom were immigrants and/or had progressive affiliations. President Harry S. Truman spoke out publicly against avant-garde art, calling it “scrambled egg” art and the artists “half-baked” and “lazy.” William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American ran images of the art with caustic captions. Conservative artists’ groups, unhappy with the exclusion of Realist work, organized letter-writing campaigns against the program.

As a result of all this turmoil, the State Department closed down the program, leaving the art to be auctioned off to institutions by the War Assets Administration in 1948. The current exhibition reassembles most of the oils and some of the watercolors sold as war surplus.

To Twenty-First Century eyes, few of the works on view seem controversial. They certainly achieve the goal of demonstrating America’s artistic coming of age. Their value on today’s market was demonstrated in 2006, when one of three works in “Advancing American Art” by early Modernist Stuart Davis (1892–1964), “Still Life with Flowers,” 1930, reflecting the influence of the Armory Show of 1913 and the artist’s recent sojourn in Paris, fetched $3,152,000 at Christie’s. An icon of the most progressive trends in American painting, it was sold in 1948 to an Illinois school district for $62.

One of the big names on view, the most important and enduring Modernist, Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), is represented by a characteristically strong still life, “Wild Sea Rose,” and the glowering “Whale’s Jaw, Dogtown,” depicting a boulder-strewn area in Gloucester, Mass. Arthur Dove (1880–1946), America’s first Abstractionist, turned out a lifetime of challenging, often enigmatic works. Two paintings from late in his career, “Grey-Green” and “Another Arrangement,” showcase his gift for sensitive colors applied to compositions that were considered aesthetically daring in the 1940s.

Three characteristic paintings by Russian émigré Max Weber (1881–1961) document the influence of his teacher, Henri Matisse, and his exposure to and embrace of the European avant-garde early in the Twentieth Century. Both his figural studies, like “Conversation,” and Cezannesque still lifes like “Fruit and Wine,” are infused with spirituality and drew inspiration from nature and the real world.

As one might anticipate, “House in Provincetown” by Realist Edward Hopper (1882–1967) features the effects of sunlight on the side of a New England white house. Art historian Heather Read suggests that in this oil the artist of American alienation “captures the disquieting effect of a neighborhood submerged in the echoing stillness of Indian summer.” It is one of a number of traditional, quintessential American views that were overshadowed by avant-garde images and painters in the postwar show.

Among the more interesting artists in the State Department exhibition who might be classified as fairly famous today are Walt Kuhn, William Gropper and Ralston Crawford. Kuhn (1877–1949), one of the oldest painters in the exhibition, was a key organizer of the Armory Show of 1913 that introduced Modernism to America. Best known for his strong depictions of circus performers, he turned to still lifes, like “Still Life with Red Bananas,” late in his career, painting somber-toned compositions reminiscent of Paul Cezanne. “Pine at Five O’Clock,” a vigorous rendering of a towering tree, utilized brushwork that echoes his treatment of fit acrobats and clowns. This traditional image made it a safer bet for the cover of Art News than some of the exhibition’s more provocative selections.

A rabble-rousing social critic with a brush, Gropper (1897–1977) turned out works that were bound to arouse the ire of critics, yet his stature in the art world was such that he was a clear — if courageous — choice. He was targeted by disdainful congressmen, the House Un-American Activities Committee detailed his long list of “Communist” affiliations and he was later denounced as a subversive and ordered to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red hunting” committee; he denied ever joining the Communist Party.

Among the three Groppers selected were a powerful painting of human suffering and loss — a woman hopelessly picking through the rubble of her house that has been destroyed by war or an act of nature — and an animated watercolor in which a swarm of ravens is about to descend on a swirl of men so locked in close combat that they fail to notice the threat from above. A 1945 oil, “They Fought to the Last Man,” vividly depicts the carnage of war.

Gropper’s soulmate Philip Evergood (1901–1973) graphically depicts evil in “Fascist Leader,” in which a ghastly skeleton in a fancy blue and gold uniform gestures toward a long line of chained prisoners of war, while an added portent of evil, a second skeleton, hovers above.

Crawford (1906–1978), whose prewar Precisionist canvases were acclaimed, kept painting on the side while serving in the Army Air Force during World War II and right after. Rather than continuing as a Precisionist, he applied a color-filled, semiabstract style to two oils growing out of a commission from the Miller Lighting Company to illustrate its latest light installation at the Curtis-Wright aircraft plant in Buffalo, N.Y. In “Plane Production” and “Wing Fabrication” flattened, simplified forms and large planes of smoothly applied, saturated color suggest aircraft parts that are simplified to the point of abstraction.

Other famous artists displayed include Ben Shahn (poignant temperas of urban poor); Charles Sheeler (precise depiction of automobile spare parts); Georgia O’Keeffe (closeup of an Eastern skunk cabbage and an undulating New Mexico high desert landscape); John Marin (two energetic seascapes) and Jacob Lawrence (panoramic view of Harlem people and buildings).

There are also characteristic works by diverse artists still well regarded today: William Baziotes, Romare Bearden, Charles Burchfield, Werner Drewes, Lyonel Feininger, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jack Levine, Loren MacIver, Reginald Marsh, George L.K. Morris and Robert Motherwell.

Among lesser known artists, a Cubist/Fauvist image by Abraham Rattner (1892–1978), “The Yellow Table,” stands out, as do colorful, Cubist interpretations of lively New York subway exits and tenements by O. Louis Guglielmi (1906–1956).

It is good to see paintings by numerous artists whose work is too frequently overlooked nowadays: Anton Refregier, Louis Bouche, Byron Browne, Joseph De Martini, Adolf Dehn, Robert Gwathmey, John Heliker, Morris Kantor, Dong Kingman, Karl Knaths, Edmund Lewandowski, Herman Maril, Irene Rice Pereira, Gregorio Prestopino, Boardman Robinson, Mitchell Siporin and Franklin Watkins.

Rounding out the exhibition’s survey of 1940s art are interesting works by painters almost completely unknown today, such as Ben-Zion, Rainey Bennett, Douglas Brown, Paul Burlin, Benjamin Kopman, Julian Levi, Lewis Jean Liberte, De Hirsh Margules, Hans Moller, Everett Spruce, Nahum Tschacbasov, Sol Wilson and Karl Zerbe. In a sense, the 1946 project has had a second life, as various university museums, notably the three that organized this exhibition, and galleries that displayed “Advancing American Art” paintings over the years reached countless Americans in their formative years.

Since the curtailed postwar tours prevented a full appreciation of what these paintings had to say about the artists and the period in which they were created, the reunion of their works gives the artists and their original State Department organizers the recognition they deserve.

Moreover, the public debate about the project that raged more than six decades ago — about the value of Modern art, what constitutes a truly American art form and government’s role in art patronage — addressed issues still pertinent today.

The 273-page catalog includes images and essays about each work, informative chapters by art historians and appendices documenting exhibition checklists and other useful information. First-rate in every way and published by the Georgia Museum of Art, it sells for $65, hardcover.

The Georgia Museum of Art is at 90 Carlton Street on the University of Georgia campus. For information, 706-542-4662 or www.uga.edu/gamuseum.

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