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The Right Mistakes

By Meisha Rosenberg

Director’s Choice: Focus on Modernism

The Hyde Collection, through Sept. 14


Modern art can seem innocent by today’s postmodern standards. Compare, say, an early cubist guitar by Picasso to contemporary performances by French artist Orlan, who has undergone multiple plastic surgeries, documenting blood, bruises and all. But cubism was shockingly new to viewers in the early 20th century, and the artworks that came out of the modernist period enact an ever-continuing revolution. They still can unlock imaginative doors, as this wonderful small-but-potent exhibit shows. Director’s Choice: Focus on Modernism, in the Hoopes Gallery, is a lively introduction to the new director of the Hyde, David F. Setford, who has a background in modernism.

The way this exhibit has been arranged, in partly chronological, partly intuitive order, one can feel the force of change breaking on the continent and then in America. We get some big names here: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Calder, Kandinsky. But a strength is that Setford’s selection points out lesser-known lights, such as Abraham Walkowitz and the printmaker Stanley William Hayter, as well as some infrequently seen works by famous artists, which lets visitors envision modernism afresh. Many artworks are lithographs or smaller-scale studies, but they are just as rewarding as more attention-grabbing work can be. Another strength is the intimate one-room setting; works are closely hung one above another, as in a salon, and sculptures are situated at slanted angles, which increases the feeling of casual discovery.

We start with figural works by Picasso, Modigliani, and Matisse. In Picasso’s entrancing small drypoint etching, Deux Figures Nues (1909), a standing figure looks like he is crossing an invisible line from realism into cubism as his body breaks into abstraction; it is as though the baby steps of modernism were caught on a time capsule of paper. Other European works by Max Ernst, Chaim Gross, and Max Beckmann follow; Ernst’s two lithographs are elegantly complex figures that show his mastery of composition and love of symbols. In Etoile de Mer (Starfish) (1950), one figure’s triangle head is topped by a squid; in Danseuses (1945-55), a dancer’s hands look like swans’ heads. Beckmann’s disjointed angles and strange characters in Hinter den Kulissen (Behind the Scenes) (1921), from a portfolio titled Der Jahrmarkt (The Annual Fair), speak of the distortions of Weimar Germany.

What would an exhibit on modernism be without a subtheme on the metropolis, that ultimate creation of the machine age? Philip Guston imagines a terrific, cartoony upside-down city of blocky buildings and the soles of shoes in his lithograph The Street (1970), while Bill Barrett confabulates a city-machine in the densely constructed bronze Untitled (Study for Manhattan Totem) (1972). Walkowitz’s simple, labyrinthine urban mountain Untitled (1913) takes a place of honor, on a freestanding wall sectional; the graphite work is one of the earliest examples of American modernist abstraction. And Walkowitz arranged the very first American show of modernist art—his own—in 1908. In an interview, explaining his daring, he has said, “In order to be right you must first be wrong.” Indeed, modernism shows us the beauty of the “wrong,” the distorted or (seemingly) simple.

Americans may have been late to the party, but their works here show diverse interpretations of modernism, from the spontaneous splashes and drips of Lee Krasner (Abstract in Brown Ink, 1970) to the Hopper-esque social realism of Joseph Jeffers Dodge, an important name at the Hyde. Dodge was the Hyde curator who encouraged Charlotte Hyde in her acquisition of modern art; he donated his large oil Hudson River Town (1959) to the museum, and it really captures the warm chalky brick light of empty upstate streetscapes.

Particularly striking on two adjacent walls are mid-century abstract works by Krasner, Stanton MacDonald Wright, Adolph Gottlieb, and their Northern European counterparts, Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel. Appel’s Untitled lithograph (1968), looking like a child’s drawing of a totem in primary colors, speaks to other works in the exhibit that reflect the influence of primitivism, such as the haunting sculpture The Puritan (1945-55), made of what looks like a worn door lock, by Bolton Landing resident (and Hyde favorite) David Smith. Smith also has a diaristically expressive work on paper here, Untitled (Julia Marlowe Concert, Jan. 1946). Other great sculptural work includes a large burnished bronze titled Low Landscape, Sideways (1962) by Dorothy Dehner (at one time married to Smith), which makes its own symbolic world in curved and rectilinear shapes and empty space. And I loved the accidental poetry of John Chamberlain’s study for an outdoor sculpture, made of crushed car metal, paint, and cardboard (Untitled, 1963-64)—one learns that, unfortunately, the finished sculpture was lost.

With collage and art-as-performance very much with us today, the radical doubt and disjunctures of modernism are still unfolding. Luckily for us, collectors like Charlotte Hyde, with her roots in the Victorian world (she was born in 1867), were daring enough to see into the future, and she began what continues to be an important legacy for the museum.

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