Various authors, Modern Art in the United States , 1956

Tate hoped to host an exhibition of contemporary art from the United States soon after its first major show of American art in 1946 but a decade passed before this ambition could be realised. Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of the Museum of Modern Art signalled a closer relationship between Tate and the Museum of Modern Art, and acknowledged a growing international interest in the ‘full range’ of contemporary art from the United States. The lead catalogue essay by Holger Cahill, a leading arts administrator, harked back to European concepts and models. But such was the growing currency of the idea of the US’s rise to self-determination in the visual arts that it concluded defiantly, ‘Whatever direction American art is to take, it will be taken primarily in relation to the American situation. After its long tutelage to Europe and its turn toward Asia, American art today has the courage and the will to choose itself.’


The first large-scale exhibition to be held at the Tate Gallery after the restoration in 1946 of the first six galleries of the seriously bomb-damaged building was ‘American Painting from the eighteenth century to the present day’. This notable exhibition, assembled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, gave the British public its first opportunity of seeing something like the full range of American painting, and of seeing with the fine American-owned paintings by West, Copley, Stuart and Whistler the British examples. In this exhibition, however, although it included a number of works by contemporary artists, no attempt was made to cover the whole modern field. These were, however, sufficient to arouse widespread interest and the hope that the opportunity would occur to show a more fully representative collection of modern American painting. Now that such an opportunity has presented itself, the Tate Gallery and the Arts Council are happy to welcome the first big exhibition devoted entirely to modern painting, sculpture and prints from the United States to come to Britain, an exhibition drawn almost entirely from works in the collection of that dynamic and adventurous institution, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Everyone will be grateful to its Director, Mr René d’Harnoncourt, and its Director of Collections, Mr Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the conception of this exhibition; as also to Miss Dorothy Miller and Mr William Lieberman for their share in the selection. Mr Porter McCray, the organizer of the exhibition, and Mrs M. Stroup Austin, Information and Cultural Affairs Officer at the United States Information Service in London, have given great practical help.

John Rothenstein
Philip James


The Museum of Modern Art is honoured to present to the British public this selection of twentieth-century painting, sculpture and prints from its collections. We are grateful to the Trustees of the Tate Gallery and its Director, Sir John Rothenstein, for their cordial invitation, and to the Deputy Director, Mr Norman Reid, for having faithfully undertaken many details in connection with the presentation of this exhibition. We are also indebted to the Arts Council of Great Britain, its Director of Art, Mr Philip James, and its Assistant Art Director, Mr Gabriel White, who have generously assumed responsibility for issuing the catalogue. The American Embassy and the United States Information Service through its Information and Cultural Affairs Officer, Mrs Margretta Stroup Austin, have also extended invaluable co-operation.

We particularly welcome the chance to offer ‘Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of The Museum of Modern Art’, here in England where no comparable survey of contemporary American Art has ever been shown. Ten years ago, the Tate Gallery was host to a retrospective exhibition, ‘American Painting from the eighteenth century to the present day’, assembled by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This included a large number of modern works, but the present exhibition is the first major showing in Great Britain to be devoted exclusively to twentieth-century art from the United States.

Thanks to the community of language, American books are nowadays widely read in England, and British books in America. In many cases there is almost simultaneous publication on both sides of the Atlantic. It is almost unnecessary to mention the lively traffic between our two countries in theatre and film. It is therefore a curious anomaly that there has been no such active interchange in the visual arts, which are among the best media for the communication of ideas between nations. It is our hope that this exhibition may help to rectify the situation by making modern American art better known in Britain, while The Museum of Modern Art is continuing to familiarize the American public with the work of British artists. In its collections may be found sculpture by Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, among others, and paintings by a dozen artists including Francis Bacon, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland and John Tunnard. In 1946, the Museum devoted a one-man show to Henry Moore, and its recent exhibition ‘The New Decade’, now touring the United States following its presentation in New York, contains examples of five British painters and sculptors who have come to prominence since the war. At the end of this year, we shall over a survey entitled ‘British Painting 1800–1950’, which will include a number of pictures generously lent from the Tate Gallery; after being shown in our own Museum, the exhibition will be circulated to the City Art Museum of St Louis and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Although The Museum of Modern Art is international in character, it has always regarded the presentation at home and abroad of the art of its own country as one of its major functions. The exhibition ‘Modern Art in the United States’ derives a special character from the fact that, with the exception of a few loans from the Museum’s Trustees and members of its Committees, it is comprised of works from our own collection, acquired since the founding of the Museum in 1929. Like the collection from which it is principally drawn, this exhibition therefore represents the point of view of our own institution. The choices it reflects are those made not only in accordance with policy and taste but also with the accidents of opportunity to which all institutions making acquisitions are subject.

The painting and sculpture in the present exhibition have been selected by Miss Dorothy C. Miller, Curator of Museum Collections, in consultation with the Director of the Collections, Mr Alfred. H. Barr, Jr. They are intended to reveal four or five principal directions of American art over a period of approximately forty years. The following have kindly lent works of art for inclusion: Mr Walter Bareiss, Greenwich, Connecticut; Mr and Mrs William A. M. Burden, New York, NY; Mr Stephen C. Clark, New York, NY; Mr Philip L. Goodwin, New York, NY; General A. Conger Goodyear, New. York, NY; Mrs John D. Rockefeller, 3rd, New York, NY; Mr Nelson A. Rockefeller, Washington, DC; and Mr and Mrs James Thrall Soby, New Canaan, Connecticut. The article on ‘American Painting and Sculpture in the Twentieth Century’ was specially written for the catalogue by Mr Holger Cahill, Acting Director of The Museum of Modern Art in 1932–33 and former National Director, Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration, United States Government.

Mr William S. Lieberman, Curator of Prints, was responsible for the selection of prints from the Museum’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room and has written the foreword to this section of the catalogue. The work of six painters who were also active as printmakers between 1900 and 1925 serves as historical introduction to a survey of the extraordinary renaissance in American printmaking today, as illustrated in work done since 1940 by artists from all parts of the United States.

‘Modern Art in the United States’ was organized under the Museum’s International Programme, directed by Porter McCray and made possible through a generous grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for the purpose of promoting international understanding through cultural exchange. It is our hope that this exhibition may serve to fulfil these aims by making one phase of American culture better known in Great Britain.

René d’Harnoncourt
Director, The Museum of Modern Art New York

American Painting and Sculpture in the Twentieth Century

Early in the twentieth century a reaction set in against the picturesque surface handling and the idealizing tendency of Saint-Gaudens and his followers. The leading sculptors in this turn away from nineteenth-century ideas were Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise and William Zorach. Zorach and Lachaise were more concerned with the rhythmic movement of mass around a central axis than with the handling of surface and silhouette. Zorach, one of the early exponents of direct carving, sought to return sculpture to a simple monumentality which respects and expresses the nature of its material. He finds working with obdurate materials like porphyry (Head of Christ, no.127) a discipline which enhances the quality and emotional depth of his work. Lachaise was primarily a modeller but, influenced by the cult of direct carving and possibly by Maillol, he did not go in for impressionistic surface effects except in portraits (John Marin, no.116). The main theme of his work is woman, a glorification of her amplitude and physical majesty in a balance and interplay of expansive forms. Standing Woman (no.117) is a powerful, almost savage, concept of the female principle, which in its accent on the ventral mass seems related to Etruscan sculpture. Elie Nadelman had exhibited in various European cities before he came to America, experimenting in proto-cubist forms as early as 1907. His mature work, however, is almost feline in its elegance. ‘I employ no other line than the curve,’ he said (Man in the Open Air, no.123). In America, Nadelman became one of the most profound students of popular and primitive art, and this interest is reflected in works like Two Women (no.125) and Man in Top Hat (no.124).

Fig.1 Theodore Roszak, The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952

Theodore Roszak
The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952
Tate N06163
© Theodore Roszak/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2019

The work of these men does not depart from the traditional European idea of centrality, the form hidden in the uncarved or unmodelled block and freed by subtraction or addition in symmetrical opposition of volume and void. With Alexander Calder, Herbert Ferber, Theodore Roszak, Ibram Lassaw and Seymour Lipton (and David Smith, whose work was shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne in the exhibition 12 Peintres et Sculpteurs Americains Contemporains in the spring of 1955), the prime material is space. They are welders who work directly in metal. Their composition is centrifugal, as with Ferber, or it moves around an empty centre or line of suspension, as with Calder and Lassaw. The work of the constructivists, Pevsner and Gabo, and of Julio González, is important in the background of these Americans, as is the work of painters like Miró and Arshile Gorky. The pioneer of the group is Calder, the first American artist in our century to win a great international reputation. With Stuart Davis, he is one of the ‘old masters’ of contemporary abstract art in the United States. His work, like that of Davis, has humour, but Calder’s humour is more playful and lighthearted. The underlying sense of form in his work is ‘the idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities … some at rest while others move in peculiar manners … Symmetry and order do not make a composition. It is the apparent accident to regularity which the artist actually controls which makes or mars a work’. With Ferber and Lassaw, the balance of volume and void has been replaced by openness and extension which pay scant attention to mass or surface or the gracilities of the sculptor’s materials. In Ferber’s work – Portrait of Jackson Pollock (no.112) is an early example – space is pierced and held in tension in a nervous linear style. Surface has been reduced to a minimum, and centrality has been abandoned for a free play of spaces and linear shapes in moving equilibrium. Lassaw’s sculpture has the feeling of envelopment which one finds in contemporary American painting of large scale and flat surface. Lassaw has stated that one of his most intriguing fantasies is that of entering the interior world of the work of art, as in the story of the Chinese master, Wu Tao-tzu, who walked into a cave in one of his landscapes and was seen no more. In Kzvannon (no.119), a title which has religious overtones, the linear form weaving around a central void is, from one point of view, a series of interlocked rectangles animating the contained and interpenetrated space, and from another is a meditation on the idea of the ‘void’ in which all oppositions of the world illusion (which is also real) are reconciled. Seymour Lipton’s Sanctuary (no.120), an abstraction of organic forms, acknowledges a centre more definitely than Lassaw’s Kwannon, but here too the piece is centred around a void, a contained space. Theodore Roszak, like many other contemporary American sculptors, finds the constructivists’ position an important one, but in a world ‘fundamentally and seriously disquieted ... it is difficult to remain unmoved’. The Spectre of Kitty Hawk (no.126), which derives its name from the place in which the Wright brothers made their pioneer flight in 1903, reincarnates a pterodactyl in a crumpled aeroplane, a disturbing image that haunts the workshop brain of the modern Daedalus: ‘the myth of Icarus completes another circle, tangent to pragmatic America’. David Hare in Crab (no.113) works metal somewhat as Roszak does. ‘Sculpture,’ he says, ‘should present reality not as an object … but as relations between that object and the observer.’

No single exhibition or museum collection can give a comprehensive view of American art in the twentieth century. The best that can be clone is to define major trends. The last decade and a half has been creatively exuberant, and while the tendencies have been many, abstract expressionism has more and more assumed the position of dominance, both in painting and sculpture. Now at the height of its wave, it shows a tendency to divide. A number of strong artists have sought to reconcile a concern for integrity of surface and centrifugal organization with Renaissance concepts of depth and centrality. The insistence upon the spontaneous and uncalculated – what Kierkegaard has termed ‘the immediacy of the immediate’ – has been modified by reflection, and with a number of young artists by specific subject matter and humanistic reference. These are irreconcilables of the same order as Cézanne’s endeavour to make of impressionism something solid like the art of the museums. They are phases of art’s perennial challenge to the tyranny of opposites that do not yield to intellectual suasion. Whether or not these developments signal a new direction only the future can tell. One thing, however, is certain. Whatever direction American art is to take, it will be taken primarily in relation to the American situation. After its long tutelage to Europe and its turn toward Asia, American art today has the courage and the will to choose itself.

Holger Cahill
former Acting Director, The Museum of Modern Art New York