Exhibit of the week: Cézanne and American Modernism

An exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum shows the early modernist efforts of American artists who adopted Cézanne's radical new style.

Phoenix Art Museum

Through Sept. 26

Paul Cézanne changed the way painters around the world worked, said Richard Nilsen in The Arizona Republic. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, when his canvases began to be widely shown, artists throughout Europe were enthralled by “the radical new style of the French master,” in which he modeled three dimensions with an emphasis on planes rather than lines. American painters “were slower to digest it,” though, and an exhibit currently at the Phoenix Art Museum shows that their early modernist efforts could sometimes be quirky. “Cézanne’s best work is restricted to a very few genres”—still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and “bathers”—which American imitators rather slavishly adopted as their own. “It can actually be funny to see an American, such as B.J.O. Nordfeldt, imitate those bathers, but setting them in Provincetown, Mass.” A still life by Max Weber, meanwhile, seems so familiar that it could almost be passed off as “a newly discovered lost work of Cézanne himself.”

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But even the best American works here look like pale shadows of the originals that hang nearby, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. “Few of the more than 100 paintings by Americans in the exhibition are nearly as compelling as a good Cézanne.” To be fair, the show’s format simply follows along with these artists as they learn to paint in this revolutionary new manner. The trouble with that approach, though, is that we don’t see any of the American artists at their best. An Arthur Dove still life from 1909, though colorful, seems amateurish compared with “the luminous semi-abstractions for which he is best known.” Similarly, Marsden Hartley’s landscapes here look heavy-handed compared with his later ones. In this exhibition we rarely get to see “more mature canvases in which the master’s influence might be less readily discernible.”

Still, the show “provides some surprises,” introducing museum-goers to many artists they may not have heard of, said Judith Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal. In particular, “artists of the American West,” such as Andrew Dasburg, Jozef Bakos, and Willard Nash, seem to have been deeply influenced by Cézanne’s landscapes of southern France. Perhaps the most eye-opening works in the show, though, aren’t paintings at all but rather the early still-life photographs of Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Steichen. “Choosing subjects Cézanne painted again and again, these photographers did not ape him; they imbibed his use of space and light to create their own style.”

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