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Midwest held high in urban art period

Exhibit at Massillon museum explores history of Modernism

By Dorothy Shinn

Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

Published on Sunday, May 23, 2010

When we think of Modernism, we tend to orient ourselves mentally to the East Coast, more particularly toward New York City. Modernism was an urban movement and a European one to boot, and when it first came to the United States, it made its one and only landfall in Manhattan. That's the legend anyway.

In Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest, a new exhibit at the Massillon Museum of Art through Sept. 12, director Christine Shearer, who curated the show, hopes to rewrite that legend a bit, if not erase it entirely. Against the Grain is about the history of Modernism in an area defined by eight states: Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. More particularly, this show concentrates on major developments in the most important art centers of the Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis.

''One of the things we found out was how huge it was,'' Shearer said. In the visual arts, Modernism encompassed everything from Fauvism to the New York School. That's more than 100 years' worth of 'isms.' '' There are 67 works in the show, arranged not by subject matter or theme, said Shearer, ''but by what flows. ''However, in the catalog, it's organized by themes: Abstraction, The Human Condition, Urban and Industrial Life, The Social Order, Beyond the City and Spirit and Imagination.'' Modernist artists espoused the belief that color and shape, not the depiction of the natural world, formed the essential characteristics of art.

Photography had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete. Conveniently, the early Modernists also believed that by rejecting the depiction of material objects, they helped art move from a materialist to a spiritualist phase of development. ''At its core,'' write William H. Robinson and Shearer in the show's introductory catalog essay,''Modernism entails a rejection of exhausted traditions, a passion for experimentation, an unrelenting questioning of accepted knowledge, and the feverish pursuit of the new.

''The movement's most extreme form, avant-garde art, literally the 'advanced guard,' derives its name from the French military term for a first- strike unit, or scouts penetrating behind enemy lines to gather intelligence in preparation for an offensive. Art critics used the term as a metaphor for revolutionary, forward-looking art that is far ahead of the mainstream. At first Modernism trickled into America in fits and starts, then it exploded in the massive 1913 Armory Show that blew the covers off what this country thought art was all about.

Chicagoan Manierre Dawson might have begun painting abstractly before Wassily Kandinsky and Arthur Dove, according to current research, Shearer said. Dawson has two works in this exhibit: Differential Complex (1910), a small oil on board from the Cleveland Museum of Art; and Hercules I (1913), an oil on canvas, which is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). Dawson received no academic art training beyond his high school art class. He trained as an architectural engineer. He drew and painted prolifically and developed a personal style that blended abstraction with references to architectural design. He visited Europe and continued painting based on the art and architecture he saw there. He was invited to exhibit in the 1913 Armory Show, and did have one included in the Chicago venue of the traveling exhibit. He was greatly influenced by Duchamp's work, and sought to bring the same level of movement to his own abstracted figurative paintings. Abstraction is one of the hallmarks of Modernism, and for years it was believed that the exploration of abstraction began in Europe. That belief, however, is beginning to change.

Against the Grain includes important works by 38 artists, including William Sommer, Charles Burchfield, Ivan Albright, Clara Deike, Gertrude Abercrombie, Biehle, Bloch and Thomas Hart Benton. Essays by Robinson and Shearer examine the art produced by this group of artists between 1900 and 1950 as well as in-depth biographical information on each artist. This show is also touted as one that builds on Shearer's highly successful 2007 exhibit, Midwestern Visions of Impressionism. In essence it does do that, but it also does one thing more. It offers us a look back at some of the core players of the Modernist movement in the Midwest in a way that now enables us to appreciate their achievement for what it was, without the usual overlay of do's and don'ts.

In this exhibit we can finally begin to enjoy Modernism. And that, art fans, is quite an achievement.



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