by Karen Wilkin | The Wall Street Journal | Aug. 18, 2010

(click on image to download PDF)

‘American pioneers” conjures up a Hollywood- inflected vision of the second half of the 19th century: steely eyed men with rifles, and women in sunbonnets, heading west in covered wagons to farm virgin land. But there are other American pioneers, far less celebrated by the film industry: the generation of American modernist artists born roughly between 1875 and 1890, when those hardy settlers were breaking the sod of the Great Plains.

These daring men and women explored largely uncharted territory in the early years of the 20th century, testing the possibilities of art that was not about depicting or representing the known. Many of them worked in Europe for extended periods, among the inventors of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada and more. But even those who traveled less gained first-hand experience of modernism through the array of vanguard European works in the great international 1913 Armory Show or through the exhibitions at the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery. These ambitious, adventurous Americans assimilated the innovations of their European colleagues, transformed them, and often reinvented them. They labored not on the vast expanse of the American Midwest but in the confines of the studio, their tools were not axes and plows but brushes and palette knives, yet they transformed the cultural landscape of the U.S. as thoroughly as the homesteaders did the tall grass prairie.

This influential generation, which includes Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler, is the subject of “American Modernism: The Shein Collection,” a sharply focused exhibition—20 works by 19 artists—at the National Gallery of Art. The canvases, works on paper and sculptures on view, made between 1914 and 1962, range from iconic works by iconic figures to important examples by less familiar artists. Almost everything—with the exception of a couple of provocatively quirky inclusions—has obviously been chosen with a clear sense of both excellence and the story to be told.

The French provocateur Marcel Duchamp, for example, is represented in the collection with a witty 1920 construction, (“Fresh Widow,” remade, 1964) because he settled in New York in 1915—announcing, we are told, “Europe is finished . . . America is the country of the art of the future”—and actively participated in the effort to support modernism in this country. Most artists are represented by one characteristic work; Marin, exceptionally, rates two, a watercolor and an oil, to document the full scope of his practice. As a result, the Shein Collection, despite its intimate size, provides a remarkably comprehensive capsule history of both the initial effect of modernist ideas on progressive American artists, and the persistence and transformation of those ideas.

At one end of the art- historical spectrum, the early impact of Cubism’s fractured planes and dislocated space can be seen in Max Weber’s staccato gouache “The Fisherman” (1919). Weber acquired his understanding of Cubism directly, when he lived in Paris from 1904 to 1909, studied at Matisse’s short-lived school, befriended Picasso and, on returning to the U.S., brought with him the first Picasso to enter this country. At the other end, Davis’s razzle-dazzle “Unfinished Business” (1962) signals his development of a home-brewed “open” version of Cubism, all crisp, floating planes and cranky shapes, from a combination of exposure to the Armory Show, a sojourn in Paris, and independence of mind. The two Marins reinforce the message. His 1922 watercolor, an exuberant sunset over a geometric ocean, restates the lesson of the Weber, while his 1952 oil, a seascape of tangled, free-wheeling strokes against an expanse of white, suggests, as the Davis does, the advent of the new, unbounded space typical of American postwar abstraction.

The collection’s O’Keeffe, “Dark Iris No. 2” (1927), is a textbook example, as are Dove’s looming sunrise, Sheeler’s geometric barns and Demuth’s paean to the American factory. Other standouts include the radiant still lifes by Maurer and Patrick Henry Bruce—both tragically short-lived expatriates and suicides, after their return to the U.S. The Maurer, all brushy planes, unstable colors and shifting patterns, and the Bruce, a miracle of delectable hues and rock-solid form, give us both artists at their best. The Hartley, painted in Berlin in 1913, is the earliest work in the collection and among the earliest American abstractions; it’s at once typical, because of its graphic evocation of military insignia, and unexpected, because of its pale primary hues. Most surprising? A big, handsome, biomorphic 1916 abstract painting by Man Ray. The quirks? They’re what make individually chosen collections interesting.

Deborah and Ed Shein have announced their intention of eventually donating their entire collection to the National Gallery. To date, the Marin oil and the Duchamp have been formally given and a pair of Deco-inspired cast-concrete sculptures, c. 1922, by John Storrs are promised gifts. In time, the carefully chosen works in “American Modernism” will enhance the National Gallery’s own holdings. In the meantime, they make an informative little show.