To mark its last 25 years, the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries has mounted an extraordinary exhibition of modern American painting and sculpture drawn mainly from the first four decades of the century. Among the earliest works in the show are the Fauvist Still Life (circa 1907) by Alfred Maurer; a bronze sculpture, Standing Male Nude (1908-9), by Elie Nadelman; Self-Portrait (1912), by Stuart Davis, and early abstract paintings by Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Morton Livingston Schamberg from the years 1913 to 1915. Among the later works are Hartley’s Fisherman’s Last Supper (1938), John Marin’s Lobster Boat, Cape Split, Maine (1938), Arnold Friedman’s Tree Stumps (circa 1944-46), a Dove landscape called Runway (1946) and a characteristic late Davis called Little Giant Still Life (1950). All are works of museum quality-a standard, alas, that a number of our museums, especially those that show modern American painting and sculpture, no longer bother to meet.
The 1920′s and 30′s are particularly well represented in the show, with classic works by Gaston Lachaise, Charles Demuth and Gerald Murphy, as well as some of the artists already mentioned. If only for the large room on the second floor devoted to paintings by Hartley from almost every phase of his long career, this is a show not to be missed. A few of the late Hartleys- Prayer on Park Avenue (1942), for example, and the seascape called Storm Down Point Way, Old Orchard Beach (1941-43)-are likely to be unfamiliar even to people who think they know Hartley’s oeuvre pretty well.
This period of early American modernism-roughly, the years from the Armory Show in 1913 to the war years in the early 1940′s-has always been a priority interest at Salander-O’Reilly, and the exhibitions that the gallery has devoted to this period have greatly enhanced our understanding of its achievements. The attention given this period hasn’t been exclusively confined to the most famous reputations, either. The shows devoted to the work of Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918) in 1982 and 1986 did much to revive interest in this all-but-forgotten modernist. Schamberg, who was himself represented in the Armory Show, is best known today for his paintings based on machine forms, for his Cubist-influenced abstractions, of which there are several fine examples in the current exhibition, and for a Dada classic entitled God (1917-18), a construction of plumbing fixtures mounted on a box that the artist produced as an antiwar statement. He died in the great flu epidemic of 1918 at the age of 37.
The four exhibitions devoted to Arnold Friedman (1874-1946) between 1986 and 1996 were a similar effort to rescue the work of an undeservedly forgotten modernist of great distinction. Shamefully, no museum has ever accorded this work the attention it deserves, yet in the current exhibition, in the company of masters like Hartley, Marin, Dove and Maurer, Friedman’s paintings more than hold their own. In pictures like Still Life (Petunias) , Cat in Chair and Interior With Cat and Bookcase (all circa 1942-46), he is as subtle and original a colorist as Vuillard and Bonnard, and the late landscapes, too, are paintings of an astounding originality. Yet today he remains an underground reputation, admired by a few critics and connoisseurs but still unknown to an art public besotted by crackpot talents and kitschmongers of every variety.
About another of my favorite American modernists in this exhibition-Alfred Maurer-I will defer comment until I have seen the exhibition devoted to his work at the Hollis Taggart Galleries, which is scheduled to open on Nov. 30. (It remains on view at Hollis Taggart, 48 East 73rd Street, through Jan. 15.) Suffice it to say that Maurer, too, was an extraordinary talent, and there are also examples of his work in the Salander-O’Reilly show that you are unlikely to have seen before.
These early 20th-century American modernists have by no means been the sole interest at Salander-O’Reilly during this 25-year history. As its recent Turner exhibition served to remind us, the gallery has also treated the New York art public to an astonishing series of exhibitions devoted to the European masters-Rubens, Delacroix, Constable, Corot and Géricault, among others-while at the same time devoting equally serious attention to the work of a wide variety of contemporary painters.
This would be a remarkable phenomenon in any period, but to encompass such a range of artistic achievement at such a high level of esthetic quality in our period, which has suffered such a radical deficit in artistic standards, is something of a miracle. It is certainly one of the reasons why this gallery has won such a distinctive place on the American art scene during the past quarter-century. And with the announcement that we can look forward to exhibitions devoted to Rembrandt and his relation to Titian and Tintoretto, and to the late works of Joan Miró, in the coming year, it looks as if this remarkable standard will continue for the foreseeable future. Bravo, and congratulations!
The current show, Modernist Painting and Sculpture in America: The Past 25 Years at Salander O’Reilly , remains on view at the gallery, 20 East 79th Street, through Dec. 4
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.