At a new exhibition at the Whitney in New York, a look back at early 20th-century modernist art offers optimism and also a rare diversity
Yun Gee, Street Scene, 1926. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt and Denis Y Suspitsyn
Although the dawn of the 20th century was a time of war, pandemic and social upheaval, it also brought with it an undeniable sense of hope and opportunity that was central to the modernist art that was flourishing at the time. Visionary new aesthetics were being unleashed on to the world, and artists truly believed in the revolutionary potential of their work. It is this unrivaled possibility, openness and optimism that the Whitney Museum’s new exhibit of modernist art, At the Dawn of a New Age, seeks to channel for museum-goers.
“There’s this sense of ebullience that registers in the work,” said the scholar and longtime Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, who organized this show. “It seemed that it would be fitting to showcase this work at a time when we’re dealing with the dystopia of the present day. I’m hoping to introduce the public to the range of quality and styles, the myriad ways that Americans translated what was happening in Europe to an American vernacular.”
True to Haskell’s aims, the show is a riot of colors, moods and styles, giving a sense of the heady experimentation at work as artists hewed out a distinctively American modernism. From neoclassical fantasia to sensual abstractions, radiant landscapes, transcendental visions, cubist street scenes and even a vintage set of the world’s predominant tarot deck, At the Dawn of a New Age presents a dizzying range of art. This profusion is somewhat tamed by being thoughtfully arranged into three galleries that offer visitors opportunities to pace themselves and tease out links between the pieces in a given room.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt and Denis Y Suspitsyn/Whitney Museum of American Art
Haskell wanted her show to make a provocative counterpoint to the currently running Whitney Biennial. Thus, she combed through the museum’s archives to not just celebrate modernist standard-bearers like Georgia O’Keefe and Aaron Douglas but also showcase artists – often women and/or people of color – who have been largely erased from the modernist movement. Nearly half of the work in At the Dawn of a New Age has sat in storage at the Whitney for 30 to 50 years, and many of the pieces on display are new acquisitions meant to address gaps in the Whitney’s collections that Haskell to identified while piecing together her exhibition. “The history of this period tends to be told through a handful of artists, whereas the reality that so many artists were working at such a high level,” said Haskell. “This has denied us that ebullience, the sense of possibilities in the work. Bringing back these works really conveys that mood of the time.”
Among the less-celebrated artists given their due in At the Dawn of a New Age are Marguerite Zorach, Blanche Lazzell, Yun Gee, Isami Doi and Henrietta Shore. Arriving from all across the globe, and all throughout the United States, they were drawn to the modernist centers of New York and Paris by art that spoke to them with a sense of newness and promise. Channeling their creative impulses into this movement, they have created work that is at once recognizably modernist yet that remains true to their origins and the marginalized social spaces that they inhabited.