It’s a familiar enough story told by C0ming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s. In the 100 years covered by the exhibition at the Meadows Museum of Art, America went from being a raw, cultural outpost looking back at Europe to being the capital of the contemporary art world.
No breaking news there. But this survey of 71 paintings and sculptures comes from the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. It’s a rich collection, even in this selection. And with such a survey, it’s not the depth in a single artist’s masterworks that matters so much as the links between works and across styles.
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Thomas Eakins, for instance, whose famous “Swimming Hole” is at the Amon Carter Museum, comes partly out of the naturalistic portraits and landscapes that also led to Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington. But unlike Homer and Remington, Eakins’ sharp-eyed realism points to the modern Ash Can School, whose gritty urban scenes rebelled against those earlier landscapes. At the same time, the influence of the Ash Can School’s big-city blues can be seen in Edward Hopper’s forlorn streets. But Hopper’s works put such psychological distance between us and his buildings and people, they practically are abstractions.
In short, from just Eakins to Hopper, we travel almost the entire stylistic length of the exhibition — from landscapes to modern abstract art. That’s how fast American art changed over the course of just two careers.
Coming of Age has viewers begin at that end. We enter a large, open room filled with streamlined metal modernism, Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism and the playful geometry of Alexander Calder. This is the bold, jazzy energy of post-war America. By beginning here, the curators have avoided a more conventional start at square one.
It also means viewers are struck by how far America has come when they step into the next gallery — which does begin at the beginning, with the Hudson River School. These were the first painters to seek a subject or mode of expression uniquely American, even as they learned so much of their craft from European masters. They found this subject in the American landscape,which not only distinguishes us from Europe, it’s long been something of a secular religion for us.
But before it’s transformed into the organic shapes of Georgia O’Keefe or Arthur Dove, the nature we see here is often confrontational or isolating, like the lone wolf staring at us from a Remington moonlit night. One of the included Winslow Homer paintings, “Eight Bells,” is a classic maritime scene with two sailors calmly working as a storm blows up. But the other is “The West Wind,” both haunting and whimsical in its solitary woman nearly blown over climbing darkened dunes.
It’s the American city with the skyscrapers and industries we pioneered that inspires some of the most evocative modern art, such as Charles Sheeler’s dramatic mill town and Frank Stella’s Broadway street — art that helped make American art international, bringing the American vision back to Europe.
There are weaknesses in Coming of Age. Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes — which often trap nature inside glass panels — would be perfect for the show. But the one here is nothing special. Although the West is represented by O’Keefe and Remington, there’s little of California. Little by or about African-Americans, native Americans, Hispanic Americans or little from pop culture. This isn’t a politically correct checklist; rather, it indicates how much America still came of age after 1950.
Maturity suggests perspective, though, and Coming of Age provides a smart, rewarding look back at how American artists viewed Europe, viewed us and viewed our new, expanding world.
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