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Keep cool – digging America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean

a painting of a trio of towers and a grain store against a blue sky

Ralston Crawford (1906–78) Buffalo Grain Elevators, 1937. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC © Ralston Crawford Estate

Museum Crush talks American cool modernism with Katherine Bourguignon, curator of a very cool art show at The Ashmolean

In the late 19th century the Western world was evolving rapidly, with industrialisation and technological advancement drastically altering the physical and cultural landscape.

Modernist artists grappled with this upheaval, mixing cynicism and self-consciousness with optimism and pride. The growing ambivalence reached a head with the mechanised brutality of World War One – an embodiment of so many modernist fears.

“After the war, both European and American artists engaged in a renewed classicism or ‘return to order’,” says Katherine Bourguignon, co-curator of America’s Cool Modernism alongside Ashmolean Director Xa Sturgis.

“However, Americans sought to distinguish themselves from European art, to demonstrate a new national identity through art. They turned to American subjects like skyscrapers, advertisements, rural barns etc. and ‘American’ styles. O’Keeffe spoke of wanting to paint ‘The Great American Thing’.”

a painting of a large scale American barn

Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) Bucks County Barn, 1940 Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago © Estate of Charles Sheeler

an etching of skyscrapers seen from above

Samuel Margolies (1897–1974) Man’s Canyon, 1936. Terra Foundation for American Art © Estate of the artist

a painting featuring two figure fives

Charles Demuth (1883–1935) I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928 © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The familiar story of interwar America is the Great Gatsby-style machine age of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ followed by the dust bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. America’s Cool Modernism assembles over 80 examples of a lesser known artistic reactions to this era – and it is one of cool, controlled detachment.

“The idea of ‘cool modernism’ was to think about ways that artists in America approached making art,” says Bourguignon.

“Americans were encouraged to control their emotions – to be cool”

“It means detachment, or calm, cool and collected. While I’m not suggesting that all American artists of that era worked in this manner, there is something interesting in the adjective ‘cool’. Critics were describing these artworks as ‘cool, austere, clear, pure, essential, unemotional, scientific,’ and then linking those characteristics with America.”

But why was it the concept of ‘cool’ intrinsically linked with America?

Bourguignon says: “Scholars have argued that in the early 20th century, Americans were encouraged to control their emotions, to keep emotions like anger, love and grief in check and out of sight – to ‘be cool’.”

a painting of water plant with huge steel tubeways running through concrete towers

Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) Water, 1945. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Estate of Charles Sheeler

a black and white photo of a large series of industrial towers

Edward Weston (1886–1958) Steel: Armco, Middletown, Ohio, 1922. Private Collection, New York © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

an abstract painting with steel girder motifs and skyscrapers

George Josimovich (1894–1987) Illinois Central, 1927 © Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago / artist’s estate

Of the paintings, prints and photographs on display, 35 have never been to the UK and 17 of those have never even left America.

“I decided to push the idea as far as it might go and to include some artworks that are extremely ‘cool’, i.e. smoothly painted, crisp and clean,” says Bourguignon, “like Sheeler’s Americana or O’Keeffe’s East River from the Shelton Hotel, as well as others that are less so in order to explore the period in a broad way while keeping a central theme of absence, emptiness and coolness.

“If you take Ault’s View from Brooklyn, for example, the pristine brushwork hides the personality of the artist. Everything seems to be ruler-straight and smooth. There is no trace of human presence, no footprints, and yet, as ominous as the work appears, there is a peaceful calm to the composition.

“Similarly, Sheeler’s Americana, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, features a ruler-straight depiction of American Shaker furniture, rugs and objects – a scene that is both peaceful and oddly frozen. Sheeler combines the simplified forms of undecorated American furniture from the past with the modernist lines and designs of the present. This is the first time it’s been exhibited in Europe.”

a painting of a city night scene across rooftops

Edward Hopper (1882–1967) Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art

a photograph of a US skyscraper with a statue in the foreground

Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) John Watts Statue: From Trinity Churchyard, Looking toward One Wall Street, Manhattan, 1 February 1938. George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York © Berenice Abbott

a painting in greys and browns of three high rise apartment blocks

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) The Migration Series, panel no. 31: The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north. 1940–41. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition also features stories outside of traditional American modernism, namely the experiences of African Americans.

“Jacob Lawrence, an African American working in Harlem, produced a series of 30 small paintings devoted to the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north,” says Bourguignon.

“Most of the pictures from that important series depict people, as did most paintings produced during the Harlem Renaissance. But the two works by Lawrence featured in this exhibition, from the Phillips Collection, Washington, are simplified, strikingly modern, and devoid of people. By seeing these paintings in the context of the exhibition, we might consider ‘cool modernism’ (or Precisionism, as it’s also known) in a different, broader way.”

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology until July 22 2018.

The Ashmolean is running the American Cool Arts Festival from May 7 – 27 to coincide with the America’s Cool Modernism exhibition. The festival explores 1920s and ’30s America through talks, film-screenings and performances held at several venues across Oxford. See www.ashmolean.org/americancoolfest for more. 


Ashmolean Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is the country’s oldest public museum and home to one of the most important collections of art and archaeology to be found anywhere. The collections span the civilisations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. Among its…


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