Take a look at a pair of 17th-century country bumpkins up in a tree. One of these early Dutch settlers is catching a glimpse of the future in the gleaming skyscrapers of 20th- century New York City. This Rip van Winkle moment is brought to you by Newell Convers Wyeth, whose painting is in the Ringling Museum of Art exhibition, "American Moderns, 1910 - 1960: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell." In one way, the Wyeth canvas capsulizes the scope of this show from the Brooklyn Museum. Between 1910 and 1960, America was transformed from a rural, isolationist, traditional society into an urban, highly industrialized world power - a place that might make Wyeth's country bumpkin fall from his tree in astonishment. The 57 works culled from the Brooklyn Museum's collection include sculptures and paintings of landscapes, urban scenes, portraits and still lifes. They are by such key American artists as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Joseph Stella, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Elie Nadelman, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell.
The exhibition aims to trace how American artists reacted creatively to the vast changes brought about by two world wars, immense industrialization and urbanization, the Great Depression and the emergence of the complex society we know today. The show takes you from the folksy directness of Wyeth, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell up to the development - but does not include - America's first native-born art movement that led the world, Abstract Expressionism. Before then, American artists absorbed foreign-born movements that profoundly altered their work. One of the first tremors in this series of earth-shaking changes was the Armory Show of 1913, which brought to New York the Cubist experiments of European artists. Marsden Hartley's 1916, Cubist-influenced Handsome Drinks shows a flattened perspective, simplified forms and letters that have the same prominence as the objects on the table. Hartley was not at all optimistic about his work being widely accepted by the American public. "Art in America is like a patent medicine, or a vacuum cleaner," he said. "It can hope for no success until ninety million people know what it is." Another foreign-born movement was Futurism, which celebrated the technology and speed of the industrial world. Italian-born Joseph Stella imported the movement and was sanguine about the possibilities of Futurism and the new art. "I have seen the future and it is good," said Stella. "We will wipe away the religions of old and start anew. The motto of modern art is freedom ... real freedom." His enthusiasm and influence had a real impact among American artists. Unfortunately, his lovely painting, "The Virgin," is not at all typical of the Futurist movement that made Stella so influential in this country, and does little to reveal Futurist ideas. However, "The Blue Peter," a work by a little-known artist, Isabel Lydia Whitney, contains a few elements typical of these times: factories with towering stacks belching smoke, dynamic straight lines and a lone figure that nearly goes unnoticed in the energetic industrial scene. Her 1927-1928 painting comes right after a big, Machine-Age Exposition in New York in 1927 that heralded the sleek-shaped, streamlined products of the new era. As you go through the show, you'll notice how American artists were weaving back and forth over the years. They were depicting recognizable scenes and they were creating canvases of increasing abstraction. After all, there is a vast distance between Grandma Moses' vision of folks skating in a snowy landscape and Stuart Davis' dancing abstractions. Perhaps the artist who most gracefully bridges the two impulses is Georgia O'Keeffe. Her 1928 painting shows a pair of very recognizable, luminous yellow leaves. Their colors are so intense that they seem to be levitating from the canvas. Her 1960 work, "Green, Yellow and Orange," contains the same color scheme but the leaves have dissolved into a swirling, abstract soup filled with embryonic energy. " I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for," she said. She could have been speaking for many of her colleagues.
American Moderns: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell
When: Through Sept. 8, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with extended hours Thursdays until 8 p.m
Where: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with extended hours