On paper this must have seemed like a good idea: to tell the story of the US through its most famous painters, with artworks borrowed from the Washington-based Phillips Collection, one of America’s top art museums.
The fact that America is at something of a cultural crossroads concerning its identity—as either a country of predominantly European heritage or as a “propositional nation” united around certain abstract ideals—no doubt opened up interesting possibilities and made the whole package seem attractive in the planning stage.
However, a visit to the exhibition reveals several major flaws in this promising prospectus. Firstly, like many such exhibitions in Japan, the show is guilty of what I refer to “name-ism,” where organizers strive to get as many big names on the exhibition roster as possible, with little apparent regard for the quality of the works or the damage that showing such apprentice pieces, preparatory sketches, or other inferior examples will cause to the reputations of the artists involved.
A case in point: my interest in this show was first piqued by the inclusion of Jackson Pollock’s name in the publicity material, but anyone expecting to see his wild sprawling canvases full of jazz energy will be sorely disappointed. The exhibition boasts one small, feeble, sub-figurative work of his, painted several years before he encountered the influence of the German surrealist Max Ernst, whose experiments in exploring the subconscious through action painting provided the main inspiration for Pollock’s subsequent career.
As with Pollock, so with most of the other big names here. Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, and Sam Francis are represented by very few works and certainly not their best.
The exhibition tries a little harder with Georgia O’Keefe, presenting four examples of her desiccated, streamlined figurative art that clearly owes a major debt to art deco. But although O’Keefe is a stylish and aesthetically interesting artist, her art has a morose quality redolent of spinsterhood and death that seems unworthy to represent the ethos of the vibrant culture that America is supposed to be.
The saturnine note her paintings sound, however, is echoed by much else in the exhibition. Thomas Eakins’ realist portrait Miss Amelia Van Buren (c.1891) is an excellent work, but the subject is clearly moody and pensive; Rockwell Kent’s Burial of Young Man (1908-11) is gloomier than any funeral needs to be; and Arthur Dove’s Red Sun (1935) glowers out like a sinister eye above an uninviting landscape.
Those painters showing America’s urban facet, like Hopper, Stefan Hirsch, and Edward Bruce, show for the most part cold, alienating vistas in which humans are absent or alone. In New York, Lower Manhattan (1921) Hirsch paints the river black, and even in Bruce’s Power (c.1933) a view of the same city caught in a sunburst, the sunlight is used ironically as if to suggest the sun shining briefly on purgatory.
Although there are occasional exceptions to this somber mood, like the African-American painter Allan Rohan Crite’s cheerful Parade on Hammond Street (1935), Grandma Moses’ endearingly sentimental Hoosick Falls in Winter (1944), and the works of the American impressionists who escaped to Europe, the overall tone built up by the mass of works at this exhibition is of a country and people about as happy and positive as political prisoners in Stalinist Russia.
Perhaps painters are not the best interpreters of the American experience, because the narrative in this exhibition is one of a civilization unhappy in its own skin and feeling alienated within the land to which it had been transplanted. Now if only they had included some Norman Rockwell, we might have had an effective counterbalance to such negativity.
“To See as Artists See: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” The National Art Center Tokyo, until Dec 12 (listing).