Modern Masters: Icons of the 20th Century at the Denver Art Museum

“My kid could do that,” and “That’s not art,” are  accusations that have been hurled at modern art for over a century. Ever since Édouard Manet displayed “Luncheon in the Grass”—what many consider to be the first modern painting—at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, the public and art critics have been riding modern art for its lack of skill and beauty, claiming that it’s not art at all. And while most people today will readily accept the idea that Manet’s “Luncheon” is a work of art, more abstract work like that of Agnes Martin is less accepted. In Modern Masters, the Denver Art Museum attempts to subtly argue against that attitude with modern masterpieces from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The official title of the exhibit—Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery—is a bit of a misnomer, as there are several pieces from the late 19th century and no pieces dating later than 1980. The show opens with “Peasants in the Field, Eragny,” by Camille Pissarro and “Sequel,” by Bridget Riley displayed side by side. At first glance, these two paintings seem to have nothing in common. In Pissarro’s piece, the softly bending backs of the peasants echo the rolling hills of the field and soft blues of the sky. Riley’s piece, on the other hand, is completely abstract, a series of vertical pink and green lines that appear to bow in the middle. However, as the audiotour explains, both “Peasants in the Field” and “Sequel” are similar in one major respect: the artists are playing with the science of optics. Pissarro, a pointillist, was exploring the way the eye reads color from a distance by painting with tiny dots of pigment. Riley, an op artist, was creating an optical illusion—the lines aren’t actually bowing in the middle of “Sequel,” they only appear to do so. Op art may not be directly related to post-impressionism, but both artists had a similar purpose. With that in mind, the exhibition opens to a gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist pieces. There’s a sculpture by Edgar Degas, as well as paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, and Édouard Vuillard. But by far the most impressive piece in this gallery is Paul Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching.” Seeing an image of this painting in an art history book or online can’t prepare one for the absolute menace it exudes. According to the audiotour, Gauguin said he used purple to create a sense of terror, reflecting what Gauguin considered to be the girl’s irrational fear of spirits. The girl in question was 14 years old, Tahitian, and had just miscarried Gauguin’s baby, which makes the atmosphere of “Spirit of the Dead” even more disturbing. In the next gallery, we’re taken into the twentieth century and introduced to the heavy hitters of modern art: Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse. The Picasso piece, “La Toilette,” is a very early example of his work from 1906. It’s not what most people think of when they think of Picasso, but that might be a good thing for some. Matisse’s “La Musique,” on the other hand, dates to just before the Second World War and is a clever play on the vertical and horizontal lines that make up sheet music, with the feet and hands of the women pictured resembling musical notes. But the real stand-out piece of the room, especially after “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” is Amedeo Modigliani’s “The Servant Girl.” The quiet dignity of the figure, along with the overwhelming use of grey and the girl’s blank eyes, implies a form of psychological and societal erasure that’s almost chilling. The next gallery focuses on the -isms of the 1910s, with pieces by cubism’s co-founder, Georges Braque, as well as Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, and Robert Delaunay. Giacomo Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” is absolutely delightful, a perfect example of both futurism’s fascination in capturing movement and the effect photography was exerting on modern artists. From there it’s a quick jump to surrealism, and Modern Masters delivers pieces by all the famous surrealists: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo, Yves Tanguy, and the joyful and endlessly fascinating “Carnival of Harlequin” by Joan Miró. The Harlequin was a stock character in the Commedia dell’arte who was known for being constantly depressed and suffering from a broken heart. Ironic because, even though Miró probably was depressed when he painted “Carnival,” that’s not reflected in the piece at all. Instead, it emanates the same kind of frenetic energy and uninhibited joy as a playground full of children. Another important piece in this section is “The Anguish of Departure” by Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico is usually clumped in with the surrealists, although he wasn’t one. His metaphysical paintings, inspired by a combination of mythology, philosophy (de Chirico was a huge Nietzsche fan), and visions that may have been brought on by epilepsy, were a major source of inspiration to the surrealists, as well as Der Blaue Reiter group in Germany. He’s probably the most important 20th century artist most people have never heard of. “The Anguish of Departure” isn’t an outstanding example of his work, but it does have the arcaded buildings, towers, corners that seem to lead nowhere, and trains blowing smoke that are the building blocks of his metaphysical paintings. It’s between this section and the next of Modern Masters that the story the curators are trying to tell begins to feel a bit disjointed and abrupt. It’s quite the jump from surrealism to abstract expressionism, and a piece by Max Beckmann and a painting by the always cheerful Francis Bacon do not a connection make. Suddenly we’re presented with the work of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann and Joan Mitchell (whose painting “George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold” is the best of the lot). Regardless of the quality and importance of these works, it’s impossible to understand where the artists were coming from and why art moved to the purely abstract without first understanding expressionism and surrealist painting techniques, which the audiotour doesn’t touch upon. Of course, any showing of abstract expressionism would feel incomplete without an example of Jackson Pollock’s work, and Modern Masters has a decent one: “Convergence,” an 8 x 13 foot drip painting of yellows, whites, oranges, black and blues against a neutral light brown. Pollock was actually inspired to start drip paintings by Ernst, who was already using drip techniques in the ‘40s as a way to unlock his subconscious. Any painting by Pollock is all the argument one needs to justify abstract expressionism as an art movement. When Pollock’s at his best, it’s almost impossible to look away from his paintings—they’re breathtaking, a truly raw expression of power, energy, and artistry. And perhaps, as Ernst believed, the inner psychology of their creator. More flavors of abstract expressionism are presented in the next room, with a monumental piece by Clyfford Still and work by Franz Kline and Helen Frankenthaler. A piece unfairly dwarfed by the sheer size and prominence of the Still painting is Grace Hartigan’s “When the Raven Was White.” But the real showpiece of this gallery is Mark Rothko’s “Orange & Yellow.” Rothko’s color field paintings, like this one, are meant to “express . . . basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” and are actually very spiritual. Standing close to the canvas, the colors pulse against your retinas, sending a sizzle of energy down your skin. It’s an experience, like staring at the sun or being in the temple of Amun Ra. After the highs of Rothko, Modern Masters moves on to its final gallery and the precursors of minimalism. Known for her delicately colored grid paintings, Agnes Martin is represented with “The Tree,” which she said was a metaphor for innocence. Just like a piece of blank, lined paper. According to the audiotour, Martin spent a lot of time and patience drawing the lines on this piece in pencil (with the help of straight-edge, of course). So give the woman a medal. The sculptor Anne Truitt, meanwhile, has two pieces in the show. Although they were made more than twenty years apart, they’re basically the same thing: a painted 4×4 post. The only difference between them is that they’re painted different colors. From this one can infer that Truitt spent twenty years or more creating the same exact work of art over and over. How creative of her. The audiotour informs us that Truitt put a lot of work into painting these posts numerous times to get the right color—totally necessary, undoubtedly—and that these pieces were laden with her memories. Memories of painting the same exact post in different colors for more than twenty years? Good times. Mercifully, Modern Masters ends with pop art and pieces by Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol’s “100 Cans.” Pop artists pushed against the idea of fine art as something rarified and inaccessible by using images and techniques everyone was familiar with from their daily lives. “100 Cans” is really the stand-out example, an unexpectedly compelling painting Warhol created using stencils, inspired by the wall o’ Campbell’s Soup cans displays in grocery stores. It’s familiar, comforting, funny, ironic, entertaining and strange all at once, and a breath of fresh air after the oppressive self-importance of the ab ex-ers and minimalists. In many ways, Warhol and the other pop artists were bringing modern art back to its roots: removing all pretension toward work or skill and creating accessible images that still challenged the definition of art. Whatever you think of modern art, Modern Masters is definitely worth seeing. Works like Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” Pollock’s “Convergence,” de Chirico’s “Anguish of Departure,” Warhol’s “100 Cans” or Miró’s “Carnival of Harlequin” don’t come to Denver often, and the exhibit is worth seeing just for that. But Modern Masters excels in other areas as well: the audiotour is actually pretty informative and interesting this time around, there is a good selection of work by women artists, and the first half of the exhibit tells a truly compelling story about the evolution of art in the early 20th century. Modern art, despite a lack or imagined lack of skill involved in creating it, is art. That argument’s been made and won for more than 100 years. But just because it’s art hanging in a museum doesn’t mean you have to like it. Challenge yourself to judge these paintings based purely on instinct and your own response to them, and you may be surprised by how your opinion has changed once you’re done. Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery will be open in the Hamilton Building until June 8th, 2014. For more information, visit www.denverartmuseum.org.

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