Jan. 27 2010 12:00 AM

Exhibit tracks rise of American Modernism


It’s got a Picasso print and a steam-iron, El Greco’s View of Toledo and a View-Master, ballerina Isadora Duncan and a leg splint.

Channel the guy with three eyes. You’ll need them all to take in “American Modernism: 1920s-1940s,” at MSU’s Kresge Art Museum, a wild, sprawling visual banquet, befitting its vast subject.

The exhibit tracks scores of American artists as they absorb, adapt, and eventually accelerate ahead of the cubism, abstraction, surrealism and other forms of modernism coming out of the studios of Europe at the start of the 20th century.

A green-eyed goddess with a circle for a butt and a massive right foot started it all. In September 2009, Kresge took advantage of a depressed art market to p.m. a mind-bending 1935 painting by American artist Hananiah Harari.

In “The Birth of Venus,” Harari carved the Venus- on-the-clamshell cliche into a jigsaw of water, sky, bivalve bits and body parts, with a wild color scheme that sews your eyes open. The painting has Picasso’s club-footed tracks all over it, but there’s something distinctly American too. Maybe it’s the fisherman in the background, calmly casting a net as if he weren’t in the presence of a Greek myth — or a famous Spanish cubist. In American works like these, along with some of the European originals, the Kresge show digs for the confidence and dynamism that made American modernism American.

Harari was a member of American Abstract Artists, a group that fought to get bracing Yankee modernism into Eurocentric American museums. Kresge director Susan Bandes thought “Birth of Venus” would make a great cen- terpiece to the exhibit: “It summed up so much of what was going on at the time.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Europe was king of the art world, but the Machine Age and two World Wars shuffled the deck. Wild cards of surrealism, abstraction, cubism and whatnot flipped across the Atlantic in both directions.

Most of the artists in the Kresge show are Americans who went to Europe for schooling or Europeans who emigrated to America. The title cards under the pictures speak volumes: “American, born Russia” (ballet-conscious surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew), “American, born Germany” (printmaker Josef Albers), “American, born Austria” (master of photographic sleaze Weegee) and on and on. By the end of the period covered in the Kresge show, Bandes said, “Everybody is looking to America. Abstraction is full- blown and New York is the capital of the art world.”

The exhibit tracks this changing of the avant-garde in many media, from fine art to furniture to photogra- phy. Pretty things that put modernism into context, like a Frank Lloyd Wright chair from Okemos and Art Deco fixtures from East Lansing’s Michigan Theater, are great Photo provided by Kresge Art Museum eye candy. But half the fun of the Kresge show is discov- ering unknown artists like Paul Kelpe, represented here by two sublime compositions that first hooked Bandes on American abstract art.

Tucked among the flying wedges, liquid squiggles and soaring skyscrapers is a modest doodle that may be the historical nub of the whole show. It’s a group of figures rendered by “automatic drawing,” a modernist technique where the pencil doesn’t leave the page, like Etch-a-Sketch (or rather, Etch-a-Subconscious). On the left of the print is a man with a Miro triangle for a head; on the right is a lady with a sloth-like Picasso foot. But the artist is — surprise! — drip-painting icon Jackson Pollock.

When Pollock made the print, he was
part of Atelier 17, an experimental printmaking
workshop that began in Paris but
moved to New York in 1940. Next to the
Pollock print is a jazzy abstract print by
the founder of Atelier 17, Stanley William

Talk about mixing your colors: At
Hayter’s New York workshop, European
masters like Chagall, Dali, Le Corbusier
and Alexander Calder mingled with Pollock
and future American art titans like Willem
de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

“It’s a time when people are experimenting,
and we haven’t quite digested it
and made something new,” Bandes said.

That new thing would come in the 1950s
with Pollock and the New York Abstract
Expressionists would take off into the art

“Here, he’s trying automatic drawing,”
Bandes said. “A couple years later, he’s
flinging paint.”

"American Modernism:  1920s-1940s" Through March 14 Kresge Art Museum,
Michigan State University 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday;
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (517) 355-7631