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A.D. 1914, Man Ray
A.D. 1914, Man Ray

The Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a bit of a black eye when it comes to the modern art of a century ago, in part because of the Barnes Foundation, its formidable neighbour on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Popular lore casts the founder of that institution, the occasionally progressive plutocrat Albert C. Barnes, as the great champion of everything new in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as one of his perennial foils among the established institutions of a conservative city. None of that is entirely fair.

First of all, that was a long time ago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art has long since taken up the exhibition of contemporary art as an essential institutional duty. Second, for all his prescience, Barnes pursued an idiosyncratic and selective contemporary art agenda. Individual collectors who can operate with deep pockets, a personal vision and no guardrails when it comes to taking risks on art are not the benchmark against which large, institutional museums should be measured.

Still, a new exhibition called Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art feels like evidence that the city’s major art institution remained decidedly behind the times during a critical moment in the establishment of American art. It is billed as the largest exhibition of the museum’s American art collection since a 1944 display of art amassed by Alfred Stieglitz, whose role as an artist, collector and sage helped define the institutional aesthetics of several large city museums, including Philadelphia, during much of the last century.

But even though Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950 is an amply-sized show, it is not comprehensive. Not surprisingly, it is strong on the artists most closely associated with Stieglitz, the photographer, husband of Georgia O’Keefe and indefatigable exponent of one strain of American modernism. There are fine works by Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, Max Weber and, of course, Stieglitz and O’Keefe. But the show is only glancingly aware of the regionalists working at the same time, with a small painting on panel by Thomas Hart Benton as part of a larger ensemble of works focused on urban life of the 1920s and ’30s and the era of Prohibition.

Check the acquisition dates on the works included: a great many came in with collections acquired in the 1940s and 1950s, including key works from the Stieglitz collection gifted to the museum by O’Keefe. But much of what is on view entered the museum’s collection only in the second half of the 20th century, and some of it quite recently. One has the sense of an institution trying to fill in the gaps, especially when it comes to the work of female artists and artists of colour. A delightful impressionist winter scene by the African-American artist William Henry Johnson entered the collection in 2008; Horace Pippin’s spooky 1946 vignette ‘The Park Bench’ and winter-gray mood study ‘The Getaway’ were both 2016 bequests.

There’s a lot missing. No paintings by Rockwell Kent or Elsie Driggs, who would make a nice contrast to the many works by Sheeler. Painters born outside the United States, who nonetheless had significant impact here, including Rufino Tamayo and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, are absent, too. Meanwhile, Philadelphia painters whose works don’t really measure up, including Arthur Beecher Carles and Henry McCarter — both of whom represented Philly in a 1933 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called Painting and Sculpture from 16 American Cities — are given unnecessary exposure.

Although the exclusions based on hierarchies of taste and prejudice are lamentable, some of the curious inclusions that now seem odd, including second-rate post-impressionist work, are often charming. McCarter and Carles might make your teeth hurt with their post-Fauvist frenzies of colour, but it’s rare to see even this much of a remnant of local taste survive in a major 21st- century museum. Nothing is more canonical than the supposedly anti-canonical idea of a modern American sensibility. So the rare works that fall outside these parameters are a welcome relief.

Of course, the power of the canon is inexorable, and this often-scattered show only really takes on force when it juxtaposes powerful, established work by the great anti-establishment masters. A pairing of Duchamp’s 1916 ‘Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3)’ with Man Ray’s ominous march to war, ‘A.D. 1914’; is a highlight, as is the proximity of Dorothy Norman’s powerfully concentrated geometries of urban architecture (barely larger than a calling card) to Bernice Abbott’s classic ‘New York at Night’. Another trio of works — Charles Burchfield’s ‘Stormy November Day’, Pippin’s ‘The Getaway’ and Andrew Wyeth’s 1953 ‘Cooling Shed’ — uses a similar palette, but vastly different means, to convey something spectral and chilling about landscape and place.

Like other exhibitions that focus on nationality or identity, this one resists conclusions. Perhaps the best way to experience it is as archaeology of institutional thinking, and happenstance, that led to the peculiarities of what is on view.

“Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950” is being displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 18 till September 3, 2018

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 10th, 2018