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Western landscape stars in a LACMA show short on masterpieces.

March 12, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

A traveling exhibition recently arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art makes an audacious claim. Modernist art in the United States after 1900 was forged in the uniquely urban milieu of New York City, according to conventional wisdom. That's flat wrong, this show insists. The landscape west of the Mississippi is claimed to be as important to the story as Manhattan is.

The show turns out to be right about Manhattan but wrong about urbanism.

Roughly 100 paintings, watercolors and photographs from the first half of the 20th century have been assembled to make the argument. Before we get to the specifics of the intrepid case being made, something rather odd must be noted.

When a show is stuffed to the gills with mediocre art -- with room after room of paintings largely notable for their snooze quotient -- does it finally matter whether the claim they're meant to sustain is audacious or not? It's a pretty long haul to the show's first flat-out painting masterpieces, down past the romantic cowboy pictures by Frederic Remington and Henry F. Farny, just before the entrance to the third thematic section.

There, two small, nearly abstract 1917 watercolors by Georgia O'Keeffe unhinge color and shape from literal description of the landscape. Their unfurling, puddled lines of yellow, red and blue introduce bodily perceptual experience as nature's actual territory. Predictably, these landmark works knock your socks off.

The luminous little 8-by-12-inch watercolors that O'Keeffe made in Texas loom larger than all the physically bigger pictures of Yellowstone, the Midwest or the Arizona desert that precede them. And they're nearly anomalies in the exhibition. If Modernism was not in fact exclusively forged in the crucible of Manhattan -- and really, only the most provincial souls truly believe it was -- should we care if the paintings produced elsewhere are middling or worse?

Probably not. But that's the strange situation we're faced with in "The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950." The show is mostly an uninspiring slog, dotted with moments of discernment. Organized by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, it comes larded with pictures of more academic than artistic interest.

Almost always, the show's selection of photographs is superior to the more physically imposing works on canvas or paper. Among them are classic images, as well as less familiar ones by a host of celebrated artists -- Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Laura Gilpin, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange and many more. They make up roughly half the exhibit.

With few exceptions, virtually all the photographers are first-rate. The same can be said of only a minority of the painters.

For every Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Jackson Pollock or Clyfford Still, there's an Alexander Hogue, Victor Higgins, Arthur F. Mathews and Selden Connor Gile. Most of the mediocre works are perfectly pleasant. But the nearly uniform excellence of the photographs, compared with the paintings' wildly erratic quality, which careens from the occasionally sublime to the sometimes ridiculous, tells us something.

What it tells us is that the exhibition is focused more closely on subject matter than on art's qualities as a material object. That's a mistake.

One profound shift Modernist art engineered in the 20th century was to dismantle the physical relationship between object and viewer that had firmly been in place in Western culture for 400 years, ever since the Renaissance. The transformation has many facets. In the simplest sense, it's a change from viewer passivity and capitulation to active participation and engagement. Attention to the art object's physical properties, not just its subject matter, made that change happen.

But "The Modern West" pretty much ignores it. How else does one explain the inclusion of a few fine watercolors that John Marin made during a visit to Taos, N.M.? Formally, they're indistinguishable from the scores of watercolors he also made at home in New York City and coastal Maine.

The show challenges the established view that Modernism was created by the emergence of a new and virtually unprecedented world centered in New York. Marin's watercolors expose the claim as a red herring.

Manhattan's modernity is distinctive, characterized by a variety of notable features. Immigrants arrived in successive waves. The economic base expanded to encompass industry. Skyscrapers flourished. Contentious gallery exhibitions of European avant-garde art provided an example for Americans. A bohemian lifestyle emerged, pushing back against bourgeois conformity.

Urbanism is important, even crucial to Modernism. "The Modern West" stakes its contradictory claim right at the outset, getting as far away from the city as it's possible to be.

Or so it would appear. Appearances can be deceptive.

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