At its beginning, this past exhibition season held out great promise for anyone interested in American art. With separate shows planned for Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and John Marin, the prospects were especially good for a serious treatment of early American modernism—a period that is only now beginning to receive the kind of scholarly attention it deserves. Yet at least two of these shows turned out to have serious, and disturbing, flaws. What is more, the horrifying spectacle of the Wyeth affair—in which prestigious American institutions lent their space, and their reputations, to showing the famous “Helga” pictures—cast an ominous shadow over everything to do with American art. One ended the season less with a sense of exhilaration than with a sense of doubt about the state of our museums and the direction they are taking.

Since there is much to criticize, we should first turn our attention to shows of real merit. “Marin in Oil,” organized by Klaus Kertess for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton,1 was a model of its kind, and vividly demonstrated the heights Marin could reach in the oil medium. We had long suspected that Marin was an even better painter in oil than in watercolor, and this show went a long way toward proving it. The late oils were a special revelation; in work after work one understood convincingly just why Clement Greenberg could say in 1946 that “if it is not beyond doubt that Marin is the greatest living American painter, he certainly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is.”

Ironically, it was Charles Sheeler, the least interesting and the least important of the four American modernists on display this season, who was given the most thorough and lavish treatment. The two-part show, composed of “Charles Sheeler: The Paintings and Drawings” and “Charles Sheeler: The Photographs,”2 was organized by Carol Troyen and Theodore Stebbins for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was well selected and beautifully installed; and the two-volume catalogue is a major contribution to the field. Despite the unavoidable absence of a few key works, most notably the famous 1931 Classic Landscape now travelling with the Ebsworth Collection, the exhibition was complete, with a special and particularly beautiful section devoted to Sheeler’s photographs. At Boston, the photographs were hung separately so that we could study them carefully as individual works, but we could not see them in close relation to the paintings.

Several conclusions were suggested by the show, some of them confirming what we already knew. By now it is not a novel or radical opinion to state that Sheeler was a more gifted photographer than painter, particularly after 1922. Further, there is no escaping the decline of Sheeler’s painting after 1931, at precisely the moment his dealer, Edith Halpert, induced him to suppress his photography, thereby suppressing the largest and most authentic portion of his talent. Photography had been the source of his paintings since 1917, and when he was cut off from the medium he was cut off from the animating impulse of his art. When he was at his best—that is, up to 1931—he was consistently better than one might have expected; thereafter his accomplishment was, accordingly, consistently worse. His post-1945 paintings are in the main tight and mechanical, turning late Cubism into something forced and unfeeling. How different this is from the late Cubism of Hans Hofmann, Stuart Davis, and David Smith, in whose hands it became a living vocabulary, accounting in large measure for the glorious flowering of their art after World War II.

The great surprise in the show was the deftness of Sheeler’s feathery, painterly touch in certain landscapes of 1915 and 1916.

The great surprise in the show was the deftness of Sheeler’s feathery, painterly touch in certain landscapes of 1915 and 1916. They are remarkably accomplished pictures, even if they show an obvious debt to the landscapes done from 1913 to 1915 by Sheeler’s close friend Morton L. Schamberg (1881–1918). One can only wonder what would have been the course of Sheeler’s art had he followed this path. It must be said, though, that as good as Sheeler is, he is no match for Schamberg, whose art demands that we accord him his place as a major artist. In any case, we can be grateful for this show, and for its catalogue, which gives us a thorough account of Sheeler that helps us to assess the major issues of his art and life. Unfortunately, the authors do not really confront the differences between his paintings and photographs, and by insisting on the continuity of the two media, Mr. Stebbins merely avoids the question.

Wyeth-bashing is now as tiresome as the art itself. But the debacle known as “Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures” will not go away.3 After its opening at the National Gallery of Art, it reappeared in Boston (it will travel to six museums). What a pall it casts over that venerable institution! It undermines the honest and diligent efforts of the Sheeler team, to say nothing of the museum’s glorious collection, which has been brilliantly reinstalled this year. (To have seen Sheeler in the context of the museum’s twenty-three Copleys, for example, was especially instructive.) It is beyond belief that Boston’s great nineteenth-century French paintings were removed from their permanent galleries for this, or that the National Gallery in Washington declined to take a great Delacroix show from Zurich—reportedly because certain large paintings from the Louvre could not travel—but could organize this disaster.

When will our museums learn that their ceaseless pursuit of the box office at any cost is hopelessly shortsighted? It only subverts their efforts to make the museum something special; and the idea of teaching the distinctions between good, better, and best, the very basis of their existence, is impossibly compromised. It is unbearable to look at Wyeth after seeing the museum’s superb show of Dutch landscape drawings concurrently on display. (With drawings from Rembrandt to Mondrian, it was selected entirely from the Boston collection.) Nor does Wyeth help our viewing of Sheeler. To come to grips with this artist is difficult enough without the monstrous Wyeth circus distorting our perceptions and judgments.

Museums know about this ludicrous disparity, too, for the worse Wyeth’s art gets, the more extravagant are the claims made for it. When the Helga pictures are billed as a “national treasure,” one can only shake one’s head sadly. They are nothing of the sort, and it is an insult to our intelligence to pretend they are. (On Wall Street, the preferred scam is known as “pump and dump”; pump it with hot air and hype and dump it on the unwary client.) This is not a matter of taste, as many will say. It is certifiably true, if one but looks.

Everything is warped, off the mark here. Even the title, “The Helga Pictures,” is misleading, since two-thirds of the works are pencil sketches. As always, Wyeth’s miraculous “craftsmanship” is extolled, but many a conservator will quickly tell you his pictures are notorious for their poor construction. And the essence of his badness is precisely the total lack of craftsmanship in a given medium. In the temperas, all textures are rendered exactly the same, whether living or inorganic. Color is nonexistent, and the surfaces of the watercolors are often blotted mud. The pencil sketches are frequently little better than an advanced art student’s, and certainly far worse than those of a hundred lesser known realist artists working today. Despite the claims made for it, this art has nothing authentic about it, nothing true to experience. Worse yet, the catalogue claims no less a lineage for Wyeth than Dürer, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Manet, Homer, and Eakins. It is truly amazing to see Dürer and Botticelli reduced to the status of “precedents” for Wyeth.

The publicity surrounding the show—the claims that the Helga pictures were a secret, the hints of an affair between artist and model (all false), the colossal sums of money spent to buy the collection, the publishing ventures connected with it—had the trappings of a made-for-television movie. (We might call it Museum, and bill it as a sequel to Airport and Hotel, for it has all the requisite ingredients of power, greed, intrigue, sex, ambition, and money.) Even after we finally exit this endless, suffocating show, it is not over, for we are confronted by a larger-than-life color photomural of Wyeth himself, looming in front of us like an Old Testament prophet. Then, the last touch—we should have seen it coming—an instructional and inspirational videotape narrated by no less a personage than the renowned art expert Charlton Heston! We now understand that this is no longer Museum. It is The Greatest Story Ever Told.

This enterprise is not worthy of any of our museums, but especially not of the National Gallery.

This enterprise is not worthy of any of our museums, but especially not of the National Gallery. It has become a great institution in the last fifteen years, and has won our respect for many extraordinary exhibitions, the Matisse show being the most recent. But if it does not set consistent standards, what can we expect from hundreds of smaller museums? Who will stand up to this sort of thing? Philippe de Montebello and the curators at the Met did, pointedly turning the show down. The New York Times objected on its editorial page, taking the Met to task for not giving the people what they want. The purveyors of such popular sentiments fail to realize that if our museums are going to be educational institutions they must expand our horizons, not narrow them, by taking us into new and unfamiliar realms. No one can object to popular shows, but they must have some claim to artistic merit. Indeed, why not the best? Surely by now it is clear that people will come to look at good art, as the Van Gogh, Klee, Matisse, and Zurbarán shows demonstrated. The Museum of Modern Art defended this standard recently by mounting the great Morris Louis exhibition in the face of the predictable disdain of the press and the public. Yet the clarity and beauty of these works—as well as the brilliant writing of John Elderfield in the catalogue—placed this show squarely in the long tradition of canonical shows MOMA has organized over the last fifty years.

The huge lines at the National Gallery for the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition convincingly demonstrated, if it was ever in doubt, the power of her mystique. Museums have been vying for position to do the first O’Keeffe show since her death in 1986, just short of her hundredth birthday. Because the veneration accorded to her has overshadowed her art, we have badly needed a carefully selected retrospective in order to gauge the exact nature and extent of her achievement. Sad to say, this show falls far short of those expectations. It has the feel of having been organized too quickly, with little sense of real purpose other than to do the first posthumous show and rush it into production in 1987, her centennial year. An exhibition of this importance demands long and arduous preparation, with a specialist guiding and overseeing it all. American art now abounds in specialists, some of whom are first-rate. It is a pity (for example) that a way could not be found for the National Gallery to work with Charles Eldredge, director of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, who is a leading scholar in the field and an O’Keeffe specialist. (His lecture on O’Keeffe at the St. Louis Art Museum, on the occasion of the opening of the Ebsworth Collection last November, was the single best thing I have read or heard on the artist.)

In his foreword to the catalogue, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, is on the mark when he calls the show a “celebration,” because the selection is far too haphazard to be called a true retrospective.4 Jack Cowart and Juan Hamilton, who organized the show, both deny that it is a retrospective. But since works from the “1910s through the 1940s are included with several special themes from the 1950s and 1960s,” as Mr. Cowart acknowledges, what else could it be called but a retrospective? From the start, we are likely to be confused as to what exactly the show sets out to achieve.

The foreword also asserts that Mr. Cowart “traveled the country in search of O’Keeffe’s best art.” One cannot doubt this, but one can question the success of the search, for too many important pictures are missing to give the show the authority it needs. O’Keeffe isn’t given a fair chance. Her art is problematic, to say the least, and in the main her almost mythic status far outweighs her actual artistic achievement. Yet she contributed something important to our culture, and her best art—that is, the work she produced from 1916 through 1930—demands serious consideration. If her work is not brought together carefully it makes an already difficult task of assessment even harder. Any serious artist deserves at least this, a show in which we can place our confidence.

Such is the reverence extended to O’Keeffe that the crowds never seemed to diminish, whatever the shortcomings of the show. Indeed, it is safe to say that almost any selection would have attracted them, and the organizers apparently banked on this when making their choices. The result? Hundreds of thousands of people, no matter what their feelings about O’Keeffe, will go away with a fragmented and incomplete view of her art.

What a shame that they will not see, for example, the great abstraction of ca. 1919 now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the best of her color pictures of the time. Where is the dramatic skull picture from the Met, surely one of the best of this series? Or the second of the two great abstractions of the Twenties from the Whitney? Where are the barn paintings of 1928–32? Two of her most important pictures are travelling with the Ebsworth Collection, but far too many other works, for whatever reason, are not here. Her watercolors of 1916–18 may well be her deepest, most consistent achievement, but there are still too few of them here to allow us to absorb their full impact. On and on it goes, and it is not only the omissions that hurt. There is a high proportion of estate pictures in the show; these would ordinarily be welcome, but many appear to have been randomly selected, since few are major. A more thorough inventory would surely have uncovered pictures of more importance and accomplishment. In addition, the small still lifes of 1920 and 1921 are less than minor and do nothing but demonstrate just how little feel for oil paint she had, a predicament that only grew more acute with time.

In her watercolors, O’Keeffe’s color was often strong and sure, but in the Series I abstractions of 1918-19 the color is acid, strident, off-key, and the paintings are not successes. These are not well-known paintings, at least to this writer. If they had been hung chronologically with the watercolors of the same time we might have learned why she often failed when working with strong color in oil. The watercolors are consistently better, it seems, because she had to trust more to the medium, to let the medium and not the image dictate the character of the picture. We needed a chronological hanging to see her art properly, but the show is arranged, as her 1970 retrospective was, by theme. O’Keeffe apparently insisted on this method, but it hurts her art, for when the same type of pictures are strung out in succession their differences, their unique traits, begin to blur. Certainly it appears that the success of her later oil paintings, such as the Ebsworth Black, White and Blue of 1930 or the 1927 Black Abstraction from the Met, is due in great part to the restriction of her palette to deep, dark hues. This may also be because the dark end of the spectrum is more innately suited to the melodramatic spectacles of nature that she came to concentrate on after discovering New Mexico in 1929.

As O’Keeffe spent more and more time in New Mexico after 1931, her pictures became drier, like the soil itself.

As O’Keeffe spent more and more time in New Mexico after 1931, her pictures became drier, like the soil itself. It is from this time that we begin to see the decline of her art. Much of the decline can be traced to the nature of the place. The archeological severity, the romance of the region, its topography and artifacts—all seemed to dry out her palette, as well as her painterly touch and imagination. Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley instinctively understood this inherent danger and fled, never to return, after spending a brief period there. As time went on, it was the images themselves, bones, barns, mountains, flowers, that O’Keeffe relied on to ingratiate her art with the viewer. She never really worked to master the craft of painting, to overcome her lack of the necessary technical equipment. Technical mastery did not come naturally to her, as George L. K. Morris, a still underappreciated painter, astutely noted in Partisan Review as far back as 1938.

There are a few wonderful exceptions to this general decline, such as the powerful 1938 Red Hill and White Shell. There are also surprises to be found earlier on, as in the compelling Radiator Building—Night, New York of 1927, which now strikes one as possibly a symbolic portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, with its looming presence and Stieglitz’s name in lights at the left center. The painting also looks forward to the skyscraper images of Stuart Davis, such as New York Mural of 1932; and the staccato rhythms of the illuminated windows in their insistent grid predicts Mondrian’s New York pictures of 1943–44.

These successes are all too rare in this exhibition, however, and unfortunately we shall have to wait for another occasion for a more rigorous and comprehensive show. The two brief essays by Mr. Cowart and Juan Hamilton, O’Keeffe’s assistant and confidant, do not help. They are little more than appreciations of the artist, leaving us with lines like, “Her art is memorable.” The catalogue’s suggestion that she is in the same league as Van Gogh and Gauguin is inappropriate. By far, the most important part of the whole endeavor is the publication of O’Keeffe’s letters, which appear here for the first time. They were gathered and edited by Sarah Greenough, who also wrote concise and informative notes to accompany them. They are fascinating, and help us, as Miss Greenough states, to separate O’Keeffe’s art from her biography. One only wishes the same seriousness of purpose informed the rest of the exhibition and catalogue.

The Wyeth and O’Keeffe shows call into doubt the depth and direction of the twentieth-century program at the National Gallery. Right now its fate hangs in the balance. The momentum gained in this still young department by the quality of the Braque, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and David Smith shows organized by E. A. Carmean (now director at the Forth Worth Art Museum) in the late Seventies and early Eighties is rapidly diminishing. The department appears to be ambitious only in its hunt for collections, and not in any seriousness of conception and purpose.

These are harsh judgments, to be sure. But for many years, American art was hardly recognized, deemed unworthy of serious study. We have gone past that by now, but if twentieth-century American art and its art scholarship are to take their place in the broad spectrum of art history, the same demanding standards as those which have informed older and modern European art must apply. Otherwise, we are back in the soup, caught between Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary and the Armory Show, with only a few crumbs of pre-1945 American art to be found in the traditional histories of the modern period. If American art itself is to be judged by the standards of world art, it must be subject to “quality control,” as John I. H. Baur termed it shortly before his death last year. Otherwise, we judge it by other and therefore lesser standards, unworthy of our best art.

American modernism badly needs a new, critical reassessment of its artists (and of its art literature). Marin is one of our greatest artists, clearly, as are Schamberg, Hartley, and Stuart Davis. Sheeler and O’Keeffe are lesser, in the second rank by American standards (and lower than that by world standards), but they are serious. Wyeth is none of these things; he registers only at the box office. In the second part of this article, I will write in detail of Charles Demuth, the subject of a retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the artist whose achievement, of all our modernists, has been the most difficult to define. Whether the Whitney is up to the task is a question I intend to address.

  1.  “Marin in Oil” was on display at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York from July 18 to September 20, 1987. From there it travelled to the Norton Gallery and School of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida (October 11-November 29, 1987), and the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah, Georgia (January 20-March 7, 1988); it is currently at the Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University through May 18, and will be on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York from July 16 to September 4.
  2.  “Charles Sheeler: The Paintings and Drawings,” organized by Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, and “Charles Sheeler: The Photographs,” organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Norman Keyes, Jr., was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from October 13, 1987 through January 3, 1988. It is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through April 17; from there it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (May 15-July 10). The two-volume catalogue, written by the organizers, is available at the Whitney as a paperback set for $49.95.
  3.  “Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures” has been shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from April 28 to July 10. From there it travels to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (August 13 to October 16) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (November 13 to January 22, 1989). An accompanying book, Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures, by John Wilmerding, was published last year by Abrams (208 pages, $40).
  4.  “Georgia O’Keeffe: 1887-1986” was on view at the National Gallery of Art through February 21 and is currently at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 19. From there it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art (July 31 to October 16) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (November 19 to February 5, 1989). The catalogue, by Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough, is entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (National Gallery of Art, 306 pages, $22).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 8, on page 47
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