America First: MOMA’s Homegrown Modernism


Although the Museum of Modern Art garnered prestige (and occasional derision) by bringing such European exemplars as Picasso, Cézanne, and van Gogh to the New World, the institution did not forsake homegrown talent, including the 50-plus artists gathered in this survey of American Modernism from 1915 to 1950.

The wall label for Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (1928) claims that the scantily clad woman bending her butt toward her open apartment window is “unaware of any viewer’s gaze.” Don’t buy it—this is one wildly sophisticated and deeply twisted painting. How sophisticated? Note the cascading triangles of light enlivening the image like flappers doing the Charleston, and how a billowing curtain and the round thrust of the architecture both echo the woman’s posterior. How twisted? Anyone living hard against New York’s elevated train tracks knows that an open shade invites fleeting thrills for both peeping straphangers and second-story exhibitionists. And why is the right-hand window blazing red? Fire? Crimson boudoir décor?

Hopper was 46 when he painted this slow-burning vision of the Roaring Twenties, an era infamous for speakeasies, free love, and Tammany Hall corruption. By employing a surreally heightened palette and slyly abstracted composition, this taciturn sphinx of kink created a naturalistic tableau shot through with mystery and innuendo.

Even more formally contrived, George Ault’s New Moon, New York (1945) leavens a Constructivist palette of red, yellow, and black with gradations that soften its Precisionist angles. Ault once referred to New York as “the inferno without the fire,” and he stripped doors, windows, and people from this street scene, which recalls one of de Chirico’s existential plazas. One detail Ault did include—nested squiggles of green neon—reverberate with the title’s jazzy poetry.

Divergent impressions of the era’s tastemakers can be seen in artist and art patron Florine Stettheimer’s painting of her family communing with gargantuan flowers and Arthur Dove’s bizarre Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (1924)—an unabashed abstraction of the prominent photographer and art promoter cobbled together from a mirrored glass plate, coiled spring, and other utilitarian materials. As the freshest medium on the cultural block, photography featured prominently in America’s take on the new age, including Margaret Bourke-White’s close-up of complex machinery, Walker Evans’s tiny prints of urban geometries, and Clarence John Laughlin’s picture of skyscrapers reflected in a bulbous car fender (The Fierce-Eyed Building, 1938).

Add Jacob Lawrence’s dramatic series recounting African-American migration from the Old South to the industrial North (painted when the artist was in his early 20s and all the more astonishing for it), and this incisive exhibition reaffirms that American art was the real thing long before the postwar New York School forced the rest of the world to take notice.

Stuart Sutcliffe: ‘Yea Yea Yea’

Harper’s Books

87 Newtown Lane, East Hampton


Through October 14

For those decamping to the Hamptons for Labor Day and beyond, word has reached us about an exhibition worth checking out. Stuart Sutcliffe (1940–62) is famous as an “almost” in rock music’s pantheon: Befriending John Lennon in art school, he served as the Beatles’ original bass player.

The stylish youngster quit the up-and-coming band to return to his first love, and these images reveal an art prodigy barreling through such influences as abstract-expressionist grids, pop-inflected collage, and Nicolas de Staël’s thick paint slabs. It’s easy to wonder where Sutcliffe’s obvious talent might have led had he not died from a brain hemorrhage at age 21. Perhaps, with his precocious grasp of rhythmic graphic design and his naturally lyrical forms, his legacy might be some of the best album covers that never were.