No time like the present

‘Modern Masters’ a potent dose of the 20th century art

100 Cans by Andy Warhol
Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery

There’s no denying the 20th century was one of radical changes. The century was ushered in on horse-drawn carriages and exited in an SUV. Humans invented plastics, factories, nuclear bombs, rock music, the Internet, spandex and iPhones. It was a hundred years characterized by radical social movements — Congress granted women the right to vote and recognized the equal rights of individuals regardless of race. Hemlines and divorce rates went up. Child mortality went down.

The art world saw similarly raucous and radical changes, the seeds of which began in Impressionist exhibits that were so tumultuous the Paris police were called to exhibitions.

An incredible momentum carried artists through the first half of the 20th century, a century in which the human form in paintings first fragmented and then vanished altogether and artists arrived, the century not even half over, at the splatter paintings of Jackson Pollock, the color field works of Mark Rothko and abstractions by palette knife Clyfford Still, not to mention the abstraction-by-repetition works of Andy Warhol and the exploded pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. Modern Masters at the Denver Art Museum presents a retrospective for that century.

“What the artists are describing isn’t so necessarily different, but it’s how they choose and the methods they use to describe these ideas that changed radically,” says Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum and guest curator of Modern Masters, which was initiated by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and organized by the chief curator there, Douglas Dreishpoon.

The exhibition picks up where the museum’s exhibition earlier this year, Passport to Paris, left off with art from the then-center of the art universe, France, just as the Impressionist movement was transitioning to Post- Impressionism, Surrealism and Cubism.

“I think so many of the ideas that will propel us through the 20th century start to get unfolded in the first 10 or 15 years of the 20th century,” Sobel says.

As Pollock said, “Each age finds its own technique.”

The ongoing experiment was to relay not just what life looks like, but how it feels.

Take the Giacomo Balla near the start of the exhibit, “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” from 1912. Balla experimented with representing the flurry of movement we now experience on a daily basis in the blurred legs of a walking dog.

“I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind, how much they saw painting and sculpture as part of this rapidly advancing time in a way that I think we don’t even quite understand … how much they knew that the world was changing around them and artists like … Balla were trying to celebrate that through their art,” Sobel says.

After quick stops in Surrealism with noteworthy works from Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall, the tour begins intermingling American artists who build the pathway toward the peak of modern art in the middle of the 20th century in the new center of the art world as it emerged after World War II: America. There, American painters Rothko, Still and Pollock took the helm of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

What emerged in the era of modern art that followed was the trend of artists allowing their methods to be visible. While Impressionist artists were willing to leave a textured surface of paint — previously, oil paint canvases were smooth to the point of gleaming — modernists were increasingly willing to leave how they had applied paint to the canvas visible to the viewer. Pollock’s paint splatters are perhaps the best known among those techniques.

“The process of these artists I think is very important, whether it’s poured or dripped or two-and-a-half-inch brush with Willem de Kooning or Clyfford Still’s palette knife, these artists were absolutely revealing how these paintings were made,” Sobel says. “They weren’t trying to cover up their tracks and in fact it’s that presence of the artist at work that I think was significant for this movement and would influence other artists later.”

For de Kooning, the inclusion of his technique extended to allowing the imprints of newspapers Sobel speculates were probably used to soak up excess oil so his paints would dry faster to remain in the finished canvas for “Gotham News.” In the case of Helen Frankenthaler, she pioneered a “soak and stain” method for color field paintings, allowing her surfaces to be stained by paint that was later poured off.

American artists would also bring a sense of landscape and cityscape even to the abstract imagery, and eventually part with the biomorphic forms more common among their European predecessors for more violent imagery, Sobel says, and scale becomes more of a concern.

In front of the Pollock, “Convergence,” roughly eight by 14 feet, he observes, “From where I’m standing, that field of poured and dripped paint really commands my vision. It’s something that my eye is constantly tracking over, trying to find a place to settle, looking for a composition, looking for a place to rest, and in fact, in Pollock’s work, you never find it, so as a viewer you’re actively participating in the process of looking. … 

“The other aspect I get out of many of these artists’ work is the kind of timelessness and boundlessness. I think if you come back in 800 years and look at this painting, it will effect humans species, whatever we are at that time, the same way we’re seeing it today. This isn’t rooted specifically to any time or place, but will effect us I think over centuries and centuries. Even the way the painting seems to go on forever — he stretches it around a stretcher, but you get the sense that it’s only a microcosm of a larger universe, and I think that’s part of the drama and the beauty of these pictures as well, but it’s remarkable to have here.”

As an exhibition that covers a massive and monumentally changing era for art and sources solely from the Albright- Knox Art Gallery, a little known private museum in Buffalo, N.Y., Modern Masters feels broader than it is deep at times.

“Remembering that all of these works come from one collection, we are somewhat limited in terms of our ability to tell the story in too many ways,” Sobel concedes. He points to a rose-period Picasso as a particular example of that — it’s not a painting that demonstrates the Cubist style Picasso would build his name on.

That said, Modern Masters does include some undeniably high points — among them, obviously, Pollock’s “Convergence,” a calling card for the Expressionist movement; a self portrait of Frida Kahlo that’s one of her better known works; and a Still painting called one of the triumphs of abstract painting for the 20th century by a British art historian that teases to the partnered exhibit at the Clyfford Still Museum next door.

There are surprising layers of influence, too. Near Still’s work is a painting by one of his students, Grace Hartigen, “When the Raven was White.” Lee Krasner’s painting shoes, splattered in color, are displayed near the similarly vibrant canvas by her husband, Pollock, as is one of her paintings.

Female painters emerge as an increasingly prevalent voice in the art world in this exhibition, a welcome addition. From Krasner to Frankenthaler, to Joan Mitchell, whose striking “George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but it Got Too Cold” ditches the primary color palette for an array of colors more suited to a countryside autumn.

The tour ends with pop art icons Andy Warhol, with “100 Cans,” an actual oil on canvas painting of Campbell’s Soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein with “Head—Red and Yellow,” a benday dot (dots of equal size and distribution) painting of a woman’s face.

“Lichtenstein would have been very, very aware by blowing it up, it amplifies the graphic quality, the graphicness of that image,” Sobel says. “But even more so I can’t help but think he was looking at examples of that woman’s hair and seeing almost the kind of painterly-ness of Abstract Expressionism, here highly stylized in his pop art imagery.”

The same ends, but a very different means.