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Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Evening Star No III’ (1917)

A strain of melancholy pervades American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition is a belated murmur of national pride from an institution that has always seemed like an outpost of Europe on the Atlantic’s Left Bank.

Its curators, Kathy Curry and Esther Adler, sifted through the spotty collection of homegrown works and emerged with a glum portrait of the nation in the first half of the 20th century. Buildings tower over empty landscapes; factories grind on without workers to operate them; vegetables swell on neglected platters.

The exhibition essentially skips the Depression, focusing instead on the depressive pictures that get produced even during years of plenty: a bleak depopulated panorama. The museum’s vaults might have yielded a lighter selection, one that included the playful drawings of Alexander Calder, the witty set designs of Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh’s raucous scenes of New York in the 1930s. But that would have altered the atmosphere of grim profundity.

MoMA opened in 1929 with an unabashed bias toward European art, making only a few dutiful gestures towards local fare. Those artists who received the museum’s nod conformed to the idiosyncratic taste of founding director Alfred Barr. For a visionary of modernism, Barr was surprisingly blinkered. He championed abstraction so long as it was French, German or Russian – but when it came to America, he favoured work that was accessible, representational and hyperrealistic. As he built up MoMA’s collection, Barr veered towards artists such as Charles Sheeler who incorporated clean geometries into their reportage on the “American Scene”.

There’s a lot of Sheeler in the current show, which is a good thing. Known chiefly – if at all – for his odes to the industrial behemoths of Detroit, Sheeler’s accomplishments in painting, watercolours, drawing, printmaking and photography deserve renewed attention. Born in Philadelphia, he went to Europe in 1908 and thrilled at innovations of the Paris avant-garde. He adapted cubism to accommodate his love of real things, finding interlocking patterns of vertical lines and horizontal shapes in everything he scrutinised, from an 18th-century farmhouse door to the totemic machines at the Ford Motor Company’s River Route plant.

In the 1920s, these pictures were perceived as hosannas to the uplifting power of industry. Now, their palpable shadows read like omens of today’s dismal Detroit.

Edward Hopper had no illusions about modernity, and he shrank from the idea of progress. His “House by the Railroad” was the very first painting to enter MoMA’s collection in 1930, and it serves as an apt icon for the desolation that permeates this show. Hopper’s ungainly Victorian manse glowers above a low horizon, cut off at its base by the severe horizontal of the railway track.

Edward Hopper’s ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925)

It’s hard to believe that the picture was once read as a celebratory statement about America leaving its hulking past behind. The darkness sits so heavily, and so sinisterly, in the recesses and wrinkles of the façade that it inspired the Bates homestead in Psycho.

The theme of the lonely house resonates through American Modernism, and Hale Woodruff, Matthew Rackham Barnes, Dorothea Lange and Wright Morris all filtered the blank-faced farm through their individual sensibilities. Charles Burchfield, a colleague and friend of Hopper’s, painted a dark, peak-roofed structure looming over a field of withering sunflowers; the human dwelling doing battle with its natural surroundings.

As in all of Burchfield’s work, it becomes an anthropomorphic landscape that throbs with emotion. Burchfield is hardly a household name these days, but he was one of the first artists of any nationality to get a solo show at MoMA. An exhibition of his watercolours went up in 1930.

Only three years later, though, Barr was already fretting about “the problem of our American collection”. The dilemma, as he saw it, was competition among the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney, which by 1931 already had a collection of over 600 American works. Given its disadvantage, he claimed, MoMA couldn’t keep up. Yet Barr didn’t want to quit the race entirely. “For political-artistic reasons it might be poor strategy to abandon our American permanent collection at this time of rising nationalism and raising money,” he wrote in 1933. Could there be a more tepid rallying cry?

Barr’s personal distaste evolved into an institutional stance – at least, MoMA never evolved away from it. When the museum inaugurated its immense new building almost a decade ago, curators relegated American art to stairwells and hallways. A row of Stuart Davis’s decorative abstractions brightened a dim corridor next to an escalator, and Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated “Christina’s World”, one of the 10 most popular works in the museum, was exiled along with the Hoppers to a nether vestibule. Visitors could have thought American art started in 1945 with the advent of Abstract Expressionism.

American Modern feels like a grudging corrective. This thin, dour show offers abundant flashes of sombre beauty. Mostly, though, it holds out the hope that as the juggernaut of modernism continues to expand, MoMA’s horizons will finally grow wide enough to embrace its own back yard.

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‘American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe’, Museum of Modern Art, New York to January 26 2014

www.moma.org

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