Book Review: America's Cool Modernism

America's Cool Modernism: O'Keeffe to Hopper, the companion book to a show at the Ashmolean Museum, tells the fascinating story of how American artists responded to the great changes of the interwar years.

The Twenties announced themselves confidently, with tall, sleek buildings, flappers and jazz bands. The future looked exciting but America’s artists found it hard to join the party.  Flick through the book, and you detect a palpable sense of anxiety running through the work of the era’s painters and photographers. 

The book features a powerfully atmospheric collection of artworks that range from monumental and deserted cityscapes to isolated grain silos and austere rural scenes - brooding works that are eerily empty of humans. On the rare occasion where figures are included, they are dwarfed by machinery and barely visible in the shadows from the skyscrapers.  

Hopper’s magnificent 'Manhattan Bridge Loop' (1928) shows a solitary pedestrian gloomily trudging under the shadow of the new bridge with only his shoulders in the sunlight. Sheeler's 'Water' (1945) shows a lifeless environment dominated by massive concrete towers and pipes within a barren landscape and George Ault's city is a place of faceless grey facades. 

Manhattan Bridge Loop by Edward Hopper

Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hooper (1928)


Charles Sheeler Water

Charles Sheeler's Water (1945)

Lest you think that the book is unrelentingly bleak, there are moments of optimism such as Demuth’s energetic and startling masterpiece I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold and Abbott's soaring monumental Canyon, Broadway and Exchange showing the changes in the Manhattan cityscape.

I saw the Figure 5 in Gold Charles Demuth

Charles Demuth's I saw a Figure 5 in Gold (1928)

Whether optimistic or anxious, all works in the book share is a detached tone, an emptiness and a focus on precise crisp lines and reduced forms - the essence of the American Cool in the title.

The book is intelligently structured. It starts with three essays exploring the notion of the Cool in American Modernism but really comes alive with the section looking at eleven of the artworks in focus. This section combines well-written punchy essays with crisp full-page reproductions of the works that they describe. Many of the authors conjure up the works with lyrical and tight descriptions - something that sadly all too rare in art criticism. Take Ashley Lazevnick's introductory paragraph about Charles Demuth's I saw the Figure 5 in Gold - a passage which conjures up the dynamism and energy of the painting brilliantly.

'There is an arresting stillness at the heart of Charles Demuth's I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. It is unmistakable: an enormous, stylized number '5' that occupies the entire field with a hypnotic golden glow. Suspended chimerically in front of an urban nocturne, the 5's semi-opaque surface is remarkable, in part because everything around the emblazoned number is agitated. Buildings shoot skyward at rakish angles; four streetlights (or are they headlights?} seem to POP like alert eyeballs against the matte-grey sky; at the centre, two more 5s recede from view like an echo: 5-5-5'.

A comprehensive catalogue organised alphabetically by artist forms the core of the book giving readers biographical details of the different artists and allowing them to study the many masterpieces from this exhibition at their own pace.

This is a high-quality companion book to an assured and critically acclaimed exhibition brim full of great masterpieces. With thought-provoking essays, great organisation and a detailed bibliography, America's Cool Modernism is also a useful research tool - all in all a great addition to your art library.