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Dawson: Marking Modernism Exhibition

Over the last decade, Hollis Taggart has focused on early American Modernism with a series of impressive exhibitions on the likes of Alfred Maurer, Arnold Friedman, Stuart Davis and Arthur Carles. “Marking Modernism” represents a culmination of sorts, with a handsome installation of some 30 paintings by Maurer, Carles and Manierre Dawson.

America’s avant-garde art may not have had global repercussions until after World War II, but the exhibition shows some of our countrymen pursuing radical experiments from the very dawn of modernism. Turning away from his early success in a Whistlerian style, Alfred Maurer (1868-1932) explored Fauvist and then Cubist idioms. Several early landscapes dated between 1906 and 1918 reveal his potent palette, with brilliantly colored trees nailing down the spacious arabesques of arcing hills. Cubist paintings from around 1930—all angles and prismatic hues—include two vivid still lifes and a strangely melancholic double portrait.

The stylized flowers in a sprightly 1906 still life by Dawson (1887-1969) have an appealing, almost mystical simplicity. But the artist shortly turned to abstracted compositions of swirling, zigzagging arabesques that count among the world’s very first abstract paintings. Several such paintings at Hollis Taggart suggest, to varying degrees, human figures; “Blue Boy” (1912) captures the shimmer of Gainsborough’s famous portrait in a tapestry of darting blue-green and sienna fragments. To my eye, Dawson’s evenness of color and rhythm make them less plastically vigorous than Maurer’s or Carles’, but they poignantly predict Ab-Ex’s all-over, abstract attack.Several brushy, abstracted canvases from the ‘30s by Arthur Carles (1882-1952) anticipate, in romantic form, the epic rawness of Abstract Expressionism. One especially vibrant canvas catches a reclining nude in delicious swirls of off-whites among emerald greens and ultramarine blues. But I found myself repeatedly drawn to several tiny sketches, dating from between 1905 to 1912, whose hues glow with the exuberant rigor of Fauve-period Matisse; one powerfully catches sunlight cascading across bushes, rimming their shadowed blue-green cores with vivid highlights.

Why are these painters not better known today? Perhaps because their work was so far ahead of its own time, and yet—a real liability after Ab-Ex’s ascendancy—still indebted to European traditions. As it happens, each artist’s productive life was also curtailed by circumstance: Maurer’s suicide at age 64, Carles’ debilitating stroke at 59 and Dawson’s preoccupation with farming after 1914. We can only wonder what their unfettered careers might have produced. > Marking Modernism, through Nov. 14. Hollis Taggart Galleries, 958 Madison Ave. (betw. E. 75th & E. 76th Sts.), 212-628-4000.



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