NORMAN — A time machine of modernism, circa 1946, ranging from abstraction and cubism to various kinds of realism and social criticism, has been given a new lease on life in a superb exhibition at the University of Oklahoma.
Called “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy,” the show is on view through June 2 in OU's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Organized by art museums at OU, Auburn University and the University of Georgia, the exhibit contains most of the 79 oils from the original exhibit, which was assembled by the U.S. State Department in 1946.
Intended to show the “coming of age” and “freedom of expression” of American artists, its tour was ironically cut short due to a Cold War-related controversy over its content, after which the work was sold at auction.
Yellow horns, a blue sword, the tail of a red bull, and colliding, contrasting, multicolored planes of oil pigment, mixed with sand, grab our eyes, forcefully, in Romare Bearden's “At Five in the Afternoon.”
Referencing both the Spanish Civil War and the death of Federico Garcia Lorca (who wrote the poem of that title), Bearden's oil demonstrates that semiabstract cubism can make a strong social statement.
More realistic, but no less powerful in expressing the impact of war, is Ben Shahn's tempera on board depiction of “Hunger,” personified by a thin boy with a large head and a haunted expression, extending his hand to us.
Benzion Weinman (Ben-Zion) brings an almost primitive, but highly expressive handling of paint to his oil of the “End of Don Quixote,” pinned under the fallen windmill he tried to tilt with, in a crucifixion-like position.
Another bleak commentary is found in Yasuo Kuniyoshi's 1938 oil of a dead or homeless man, his head covered by what looks like a newspaper, on the approach to a “Deserted Brickyard” depicted in dull, somber tones of brown, black, gray-blue and green.
Similar in mood is a small oil by William Gropper in which an anonymous figure in red, black and white picks through a pile of debris on top of what used to be a “Home.” A “Nocturnal Family” of owls stares enigmatically, their big round eyes echoing the outline of a moon-like disk, in an intriguing 1944 oil by Spanish-born artist Julio de Diego.
Wonderfully exuberant, by contrast, is Reginald Marsh's 1933 tempera panel of three, muscular, sun-splashed male “Lifeguards,” sitting atop their watch tower, over a teeming, but happy looking human pyramid of people at Coney Island.
Stuart Davis reduces urban transit and spaces to flat, color-saturated, intersecting planes, in “Trees and El,” and gives a playful, almost Joan Miro-like sense of whimsy to his “Still Life with Flowers.”
Cairo-born artist O. Louis Guglielmi combines color, cubism and realism brilliantly in his 1946 oil of a mother leading her son up the steep steps of a “Subway Exit, “ while Walt Kuhn's 1941 oil of a “Still Life with Red Bananas” has a strongly modernist, Cezanne-like presence.
Karl Zerbe expands the still life genre and makes it more expressionistic in “Around the Lighthouse,” an encaustic canvas of fish, fishing lures, a shell and other ghostly white objects, sharing the picture plane, ambiguously, with a poster of a lighthouse.
Marsden Hartley brings a rough, reddish-brown, powerful painterliness to his 1934 oil of a giant whale-shaped boulder — a work which finds a strong echo in Everett Spruce's 1945 oil of a “Canyon at Night” and in Julian Levi's 1942-43 oil of “Wasteland Images, Martha's Vineyard.”
Vigorous brushwork, a high horizon line and a fine balance between relatively realistic and more abstract elements turn John Marin's oils of a “Seascape” and a “Sea and Boat” into near masterpieces.
Dark, flat, saturated colors, and starkly simplified figurative shapes, work well for Robert Gwathmey in his oils of black “Workers on the Land” and a “Worksong,” paintings that testify to the racial sensitivity on “an eighth-generation white Virginian.”
Georgia O'Keeffe contributes an understated yet highly effective and evocative 1930 small oil of gentle, curving “Small Hills Near Alcalde,” done a year after her first trip to New Mexico.
On view with the more than 70 paintings in the exhibit are some 38 outstanding watercolors, done at the same time, which were intended for an Asian tour, before it was also canceled, and they were auctioned off, in the wake of the scandal.
Drawing on the permanent collections of 10 museums, collectors and other public institutions, the “Art Interrupted” show is highly recommended during the rest of its run at OU, after which it will go to Indiana University and the Georgia Museum of Art.
— John Brandenburg