American Modern: Collector Alice Simkins has Assembled an Exhibit That Sparkles at MFAH

New Mexico by Marsden Hartley
New Mexico by Marsden Hartley
From the collection of Alice C. Simkins

Revolution was in the air and its leaders were not to be satisfied by anything less than total overthrow. No longer would pretty pictures of Hudson River landscapes be tolerated, nor even gritty views of decaying city tenements. Paintings in the new order had to be less and more at the same time: less picturesque and more, much more, Modern.

Such is the story of the revolution in early 20th-century American art told by the exhibition “American Modern: Works from the Collection of Alice C. Simkins” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It’s a show of 17 works on paper and two sculptures collected by Simkins, augmented with a few paintings and sculptures from the MFAH permanent collection added by Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of Contemporary Art & Special Projects. All are works by many of the most famous — and most brilliant — American Modernist artists of the period.

Like many of the best museum shows in Houston this year (dare I say all?), this one is small, which goes to show that blockbuster bombast isn’t always best. All the works fit nicely in one gallery of the American wing — a gallery mostly cleared out for the purpose. This alone is reason to be grateful, since the American galleries sometimes remain static for such long stretches that they can seem a little stale to us regulars.

But that bit of change is only a small reason to be grateful for this show. Stale it is not. More like sparkling. Most of these works are in pastel, gouache or watercolor — media that, when properly guarded against the ravages of sunlight, can keep their vibrancy for centuries. Vibrant color is a touchstone for many of the artists included: Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1916 watercolor Untitled (Red, Blue, Yellow), and her (circa) 1923 Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, from the permanent collection, are hardly anything but color.

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Even a work as subtle as Charles Demuth’s Tree Forms, a 1916 watercolor, is as much about color as form. The Demuth, by the way, holds its own quite firmly beside Cézanne’s Bare Trees By a River, c. 1900-1904, from the Morgan Library, now on view at the Menil in the exhibition “Becoming Modern: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum and The Menil Collection.” Take the time to see these two shows together while you have the chance. It’s a joy not to be missed.

Though Demuth may not have seen this particular Cézanne, he certainly saw and drew inspiration from others, most likely at 291, the gallery run by Alfred Stieglitz from 1905 to 1917, named after its address in New York City, 291 Fifth Avenue. Many of the artists in this show met at the gallery, showed their own work there and saw the latest work of European Modernists, such as Matisse, Picasso, Picabia and Braque, as well as Cézanne, in exhibitions that were often the first in America for the artists.

Perhaps because we don’t often get to see works by these American Modernists in Houston (historical fashions in collecting make them fairly scarce in these parts) and certainly not their works on paper (too vulnerable for long-term exhibition), looking around the gallery at this show is actually thrilling — as thrilling, perhaps, as it must have been for gallery-goers 100 years ago when they saw the work of these artists on the walls of 291 for the first time.

From the literal volcano of color that is Joseph Stella’s Pyrotechnic Fires [Vesuvius] pastel from 1919 — this and a few of the other pieces included are permanent collection gifts from the estate of Isabel B. Wilson — to the almost too beautiful 1916 watercolor Sunrise and Rain by Charles Burchfield (“almost too” only because “beautiful” alone doesn’t seem enough) at the other end of the gallery, every piece is a new delight.

Thanks to a masterful curatorial eye, groupings are often even more illuminating than the individual works: Cubist studies from 1917 by Marguerite Zorach and Max -Weber — one a landscape, the other a still life — make it clear that the Modernist way of seeing was more important to the artists than the things seen. And tell me, when was the last time you saw a work by either of these two here in Houston?

The pieces in a sun-and-moon trio, composed of the Burchfield, Oscar Bluemner’s 1922 Earth Sets on Moon and Green Sun from c. 1936 by Arthur Dove, are tiny and cosmic at the same time.

Edgewater, New Jersey, a late (1947) John Marin oil — another gift from the Wilson estate — frenetic and energetic, seems to have more to do with the exuberant, almost innocent -optimism of the America of his prime, 20 or 30 years earlier, when most of the other works in the show were made, than with its actual post-World War II date.

As with any revolution, there were rival, often overlapping factions at work in this one. There was the Stieglitz 291 group, including his lover/muse/soon-to-be-wife O’Keeffe, Demuth and Marsden Hartley; the Walter and Louise Arensberg clique (Dove, Stella, Marcel Duchamp and others); and a little later the Katherine Dreier/Marcel Duchamp Société Anonyme, Inc., crowd (Man Ray, Stella, Hartley). It’s this last one that brought the revolution all the way to Houston by way of Marsden Hartley.

Hartley’s work in this show, a pastel on board from 1919 titled New Mexico, is to my eye the strongest piece. Its drawing is spare but powerful: a thin strip of blue sky — surprisingly thin in a country known for vast sky — above an arid, monumental landscape in which the human presence is reduced to a single overpowered, barely sketched adobe building — a stick structure to suggest the stick figures that may be inside. The colors are muted earth tones and pale blues and greens. Pastel, as he wrote to Stieglitz, was the ideal medium for the place “which has such wonderful dry quality of color, and such hardness and brilliance.” The piece depicts the ominous power of the New Mexico desert landscape, but also a desert within Hartley himself, whose one great love, a German army officer, had died in World War I.

Only the next year, the summer of 1920, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Hartley met and spent a little time painting with, and talking about art with, the Houston artist Emma Richardson Cherry. He was there as another stop in his peripatetic life; she was there to study at the summer school of Modernist painter Hugh Breckenridge. Though much the older of the two, she sought Hartley out as a mentor; he seems to have found her sympathetic both as artist and person. She asked him to help her learn more about Modernism; he praised her drawing and even demonstrated his suggestions on one of her paintings. Through Hartley, Cherry became a member of Société Anonyme (there were fewer than a hundred members, and she was the only one from Texas), and through that group she became privy to the most advanced art ideas in America at the time.

The point is not that Cherry was an integral member of this cutting-edge Modernist movement. She wasn’t. But through her, the avant-garde ideas of the movement reached Houston, then even further on the periphery of a New York-centric art world than now, almost as soon as they reached New York. It’s an important part of the history of art in 20th-century Houston: a footnote to this show, but one that could have made it directly relevant to this place — a glimpse of our own art history that MFAH is uniquely able to show us but for a number of reasons chooses not to, even as it shares with us the rich bounty of art from around the world and across the centuries.
Though some dismiss the historical art of Houston as provincial (or not “world-class,” to use a more current, overused phrase), no city can be world-class if it shuns its own history. That includes its own art history. It wasn’t so long ago that even the now canonical artists in this show were dismissed as minor because they were only American: Everyone then knew that European art was all that mattered.

Last year about this time, I did a count of works by Houston artists on show at MFAH and found eight, excluding photographs, an omission for which I was rightly castigated. This year I can spot only seven: four sculptures, three outdoors and the other on temporary loan; two prints and a photograph, in short-term exhibitions; all but one post-1960. Some others — I recall a dozen or so — have come and gone through the year, mostly in special exhibitions. And there’s still the Texas Room at Bayou Bend for 19th-century decorative arts. Not nearly enough, it seems to me, to tell the story of Houston art.

But as the saying goes, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” I like this play very much. It’s a tribute to the eye and the discipline of the collector, Alice Simkins, and a gift from her and MFAH to those of us who take the opportunity to see it. Beautiful and interesting art beautifully presented — always a treat.

American Modern: Works from the Collection of Alice C. Simkins
Through July 19. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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