Art Outsmarts Theories in Expressionist Exhibit

The exhibition that has been organized at the Hollis Taggart Galleries under the title Concerning Expressionism: American Modernism and the German Avant-Garde , raises an interesting question: To what extent was the German avant-garde a rival to that of the School of Paris in determining the character of American modernism in the early years of this century? The huge influence exerted by Parisian modernism on American art in that period is not a subject that needs arguing. Whether a comparable influence was also exerted on American modernism by German avant-garde circles in Munich and Berlin is not a question so easily disposed of. In fact, it is a question seldom addressed. It is for this reason that the Concerning Expressionism exhibition is an event of uncommon interest.

It has long been known, of course, that Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) painted some of his best pictures in Germany in the years 1913-15. In Munich, Hartley got to know Vasily Kandinsky, Gabriel Münter, Franz Marc and others in the “Blue Rider” circle, and in Berlin he was represented in the First German Autumn Salon (1913) organized by Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm gallery, which was then the most important venue of the German avant-garde. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that Hartley is the star of the Concerning Expressionism show, though it is certainly an irony that his own paintings are anything but Expressionist in style or spirit.

It has also long been known to specialists in the subject that another American painter, Albert Bloch (1882-1961), had been included in the first Blue Rider exhibition in Munich in 1911, and that he, too, got to know Kandinsky and the other artists in that group. Yet exactly what Bloch’s own accomplishments as a painter actually amounted to has–until now, anyway–remained a more elusive matter. As he is represented by 23 works in the current exhibition, compared to a mere seven by Hartley and only one by Lyonel Feininger, it may safely be assumed that it is one of the primary purposes of the Concerning Expressionism show to promote a revival of interest in Bloch’s largely unknown oeuvre .

Unfortunately, this selection of Bloch’s work is so varied in style and so uneven in quality that it is all but impossible to come to any definitive assessment of his achievement on the basis of the current show. His Untitled (Portrait of a Man) (1911) is a terrific painting–one of the best in the show–yet it has nothing to do with the Blue Rider esthetic, and its relation to any other aspect of the German avant-garde remains obscure. On the other hand, another painting from the same year– Untitled (Two Seated Nudes) –is so completely derived from the German Expressionist manner of the “Bridge” group that it hardly looks like the work of the same hand. And the sheer insipidity of a painting like Circle of Kneeling Figures (1914) leaves us wondering if Bloch can really be taken seriously as any sort of representative of American modernism–which is, after all, one of the two principal subjects of this exhibition. Let’s just say that the case for Bloch’s artistic importance remains unproven.

Of the other painters in the exhibition, three will be familiar to most museumgoers–Oscar Bluemner, Konrad Cramer and Louis Lozowick–while two others–Edward Hagedorn and Barbara Morgan–will not, not as painters, anyway. If the name of Barbara Morgan rings a bell, it is because she was better-known as a photographer, especially for her extraordinary pictures of Martha Graham’s dance performances. I think it can safely be said that Morgan made the right decision when she turned to the camera as her principal vehicle of artistic expression. The work of Edward Hagedorn is a similarly marginal (at best) contribution to American modernist art.

As both Bluemner and Cramer were born and trained in Germany and were practicing artists before they expatriated themselves to the United States, it is stretching things to attempt to put them in the same cultural situation as that of Hartley and Bloch, who worked as American expatriates in Germany. Bluemner remained more permanently indebted to German modernism than Cramer did–but then, of course, the principal influence on a painting like Cramer’s Strife (1913) was Kandinsky, who was Russian and himself more deeply influenced by Russian folk art and Parisian modernism (first Monet, then Matisse) than by the German avant-garde. It is, in any case, ridiculous for Patricia McDonnell to refer to Kandinsky–one of the luminaries of the Russian avant-garde–as a German Expressionist in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Two of the other outstanding paintings in the show are Louis Lozowick’s Untitled abstraction, circa 1922-25, and the marvelous Red Circle of 1924, paintings that may owe as much to Russian modernism as to the German avant-garde. Lozowick visited the Soviet Union in 1922, while he was living in Berlin, and subsequently wrote a good deal about the Russian avant-garde and Soviet cultural life.

Where, then, does all this leave the subject of the role played by the German avant-garde in the formation of early American modernism? In her essay for the catalogue of Concerning Expressionism , Ms. McDonnell has no trouble persuading us that German culture–especially in the fields of university education and classical music–exerted an immense influence on American cultural life at the turn of the century. (It is amusing to be reminded, for example, that in the latter decades of the 19th century in New York, “Not just Das Rheingold but La Traviata or La Bohème would have been sung auf Deutsch , so saturated was the American opera scene with Germanophiles.”) And she might have mentioned, too, that in the early decades of the 20th century, an American writer as influential as H.L. Mencken remained vociferous and unrepentant in his ardent Germanophilia.

But the fact is, however, that in the visual arts the German avant-garde did not play a major role in shaping the course of early American modernism. Hartley was, in that respect, an isolated case, and Bloch isn’t a weighty enough figure to support the argument. And even in Hartley’s case, Cézanne remained more of an esthetic touchstone than anything produced by his friends in the Blue Rider circle. And so on this score, too, I think it has to be said that the thesis upon which Concerning Expressionism is based remains unproven. But it must also be said that the exhibition itself is often better than the theory animating it, and if only for the Hartleys it is eminently worth seeing.

Concerning Expressionism remains on view at the Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd Street, through July 31. Art Outsmarts Theories in Expressionist Exhibit