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.