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Delicately coloured, agressively compressed: “Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M.”, 1921, by Charles Demuth ( ©Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York)


From a European perspective, there is a hole in the middle of the history of 20th-century art: what was going on in America between the wars? We know about Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe and we know Grant Wood’s American Gothic but beyond that? To all intents and purposes, the story of American art seems to start in the 1940s with Abstract Expressionism: Whistler and Sargent don’t count, since they were honorary Europeans.

A large part of the reason is that British galleries contain almost nothing from the period: the Tate’s American collection is a void between Sargent and Pollock. Nor have the interwar Americans received the critical attention of their European peers: in Ernst Gombrich’s canonical Story of Art, the earliest American work mentioned is Jackson Pollock’s One (Number 31) from 1950.

The Royal Academy did something to rectify things in 2017 with its revelatory exhibition America After the Fall, which showed how engaged the artists of the time were with social issues, and now the Ashmolean in Oxford is doing its bit with America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper (until July 22). It is an exhibition that reflects a strand of art that is cool in the sense of detached, focusing on pictures of American cities, factories and agricultural buildings in which human beings are largely absent. This, with the buildings’ machine-like geometrical forms, gives the pictures an uneasy air.

What they also represent is a response to the call for a distinctively American art, most colourfully voiced by the photographer and avant-gardist Alfred Stieglitz, who demanded work that reflected “America without that damned French flavour!” He was only partially successful since the result was paintings in which the spatial experiments of Cubism, especially as practised by the likes of Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger, can clearly be felt.

The pictures also hark back to pre-war Modernism and movements such as Futurism and Vorticism which trumpeted modernity as art’s great hope. However, faced with the reality of modernism, in the form of skyscrapers and large scale industrialisation, American artists were more equivocal. New York’s city canyons, purged of human chaos and narrative, were alienating as well as awe-inspiring while the country’s industrial buildings — grain silos, factories — were places where traditional work-by-hand had been superseded. The structures though, with their clean lines, sharp edges and defined volumes, offered a way for painters to combine near abstraction with realism.
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