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The Whitney Museum renews our modernist outlook, celebrating artists who have been under-represented in art history alongside great masters

An imposing figure emerges like a mountain, which erupts from the sea, symbolically marrying man and nature. Ocean waves mingle with the skyline, evoking mysticism.

My 12-year-old son, Michael Alexander, was drawn to Adele Watson’s nerve lines and ethereal colors Without title (Mountain island monk), declaring it his favorite work at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s The dawn of a new era: early twentieth century American modernism. On display until February 26, 2023, the exhibition features more than 60 works by over 45 artists working across styles and media, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, photographs and woodcuts.

“One of the ideas of the exhibition was to take a look at this explosion of energy that happened at the turn of the century, the idea that people were really at the dawn of something new, something that had never happened before. They are rejecting the past and there was a sense of limitless opportunity, limitless possibility. And the work reflects that through these bright colors, sensual shapes and explosive forms, “said curator Barbara Haskell.

“The exhibition is also what allows the Whitney to re-evaluate his collection and to re-evaluate the period in which the show will include famous artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, artists quite well known to the public. But it will also include artists who were equally revolutionary at the time, but were largely forgotten and in some cases remained in storage for decades, “Haskell said in the exhibition’s audio guide.” There is work in the exhibition that is it was shown only once for all the time we had at the museum. And we were also able to use the exhibition as an opportunity to acquire new works, to fill in the gaps that still exist “.

Painted around 1935-1945, Without title (Mountain island monk) was given to the Whitney in 2020 by Lydia E. Ringwald. A 1930 exploration of Zion National Park in Utah inspired Watson’s transition to anthropomorphism, examining human relationships with nature, depicting figures growing from rock formations and faces appearing in the mountains.

Born in 1873 in Toledo, Ohio, Watson moved to Pasadena, California in 1880 after the death of her father. As a young woman she studied at the Art Students League in New York, she returned to California in 1917, then she went to Paris to study with the French painter Raphaël Collin and she became friends with Khalil Gibran. Best known as the author of The Prophetan extremely influential book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English and translated into over 100 different languages, Gibran was also a visual artist who painted more than 700 images, watercolors and drawings, including at least one portrait of Watson aboard graphite.

Gibran’s allegorical writing had a strong impact on Watson, who shared his deep affinity for nature. Learning about Watson only after including him in this informative and inspiring exhibit, I can’t help but imagine that the Mountain island monk the figure could be a symbolic homage to Gibran, who became an imposing literary figure also considered as a philosopher, a title he shunned.

I have passed a mountain peak and my soul is flying high

Firmament of complete and boundless freedom;

I am far, far away, my companions, and the clouds are

Hiding the hills from my eyes.

From The beauty of death XIV by Khalil Gibran

Michael Alexander and I are grateful to Haskell for introducing us to Watson, who has exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the American Artists Professional League, the Pen and Brush Club and the Society of Independent Artists. In 1953, the Pasadena Art Institute held a posthumous retrospective of his work, which is also in the collection of the Orange County Museum of Art.

The dawn of a new era: early twentieth century American modernism also features a work by Watson from around 1916-1925, Without title (Figure floating on the lake), a 2021 gift from Ringwald. In Watson’s early works, figures and landscapes were distinct, but his exploration of symbolism was already a source of self-examination and enlightenment.

We review art history through a new lens, in which recognizable works by famous artists such as Oscar Bluemner, Elie Nadelman and Charles Burchfield, are exhibited alongside works by artists who have been grossly underrepresented for decades or whose legacies have been relegated to footnote. We discover the pioneering careers of artists such as Henrietta Shore, Charles Duncan, Yun Gee, Manierre Dawson, Blanche Lazzell, Ben Benn, Isami Doi, and Albert Bloch, who were excluded from the main narrative.

“One of the ideas of the exhibition was to take a look at this explosion of energy that happened at the turn of the century, the idea that people were really at the dawn of something new, something that had never happened before,” he said. Haskell. “They are rejecting the past and there was a sense of limitless opportunity, limitless possibility. And the work reflects this through these bright colors, sensual shapes and explosive shapes.

We are fascinated by the sheer elegance and complexity of Aaron Douglas’ woodcuts created to illustrate scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s film Emperor Jones, first presented in 1920 and reprized in 1925 with Douglas’ friend Paul Robeson in the title role. The prints exemplify Douglas’s flat, abstract silhouettes in black and white by borrowing from Art Deco, folk art clippings, and Egyptian tomb paintings. Less complicated versions of these images were published alongside Alain Locke’s 1926 article The black man and the American scene in Theatrical Arts Monthly and his 1927 book Comedy of life negro.

Douglas moved to Harlem from the Midwest in 1925 and became famous as a Harlem Renaissance graphic artist, designing covers for two major African American magazines and book jackets for black writers.

“In many ways, Aaron Douglas was ahead of his time in reporting that African Americans have a deeper history than that of slavery in the United States,” writer and art historian LeRonn Brooks said in the audio guide.

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