Art exhibit exchange between American and European ideas

By Diana Fox

During the years between the First and Second World Wars, an international modernism swept the art world through various movements in the U.S. and Europe. However, a particularly strong exchange between the United States and France contributed to the production of many monumental works in American art. This exchange led the February 1924 issue of American Review to label Paris as “capital of America”—and now leads the Chicago’s Terra Museum of American Art (624 North Michigan Avenue) to present an exhibit displaying the works of American artists who resided in Paris during the interwar years.

The exhibit, formally titled A Transatlantic Avant-Garde: American Artists in Paris 1918-1939, opened April 17. The exhibit neatly divides the Parisian-influenced American works into three categories that represent the developments in modernism at the time: Purism, Geometric Abstraction, and Surrealism. A separate section showcases American and French portraits of the avant garde. Such a clear-cut division allows viewers to easily discern which American artists were most active in each specific movement. In addition, each section includes a few select works by French and international artists of the time, which are nicely juxtaposed with the American works.

The exhibit begins with several pieces by the American artist Stuart Davis, with perhaps the most memorable being “New York-Paris, No. 1.” Here, Davis painted various French and American objects in jumbled order, showing the mixture of culture. The Terra also displays several Davis works depicting cafés and streets in oils. The paintings make use of simple lines and bright colors, which speak to Davis’s participation in the artistic movement Purism. Purism (the main topic of the first section of the exhibit) sought to use universal forms in haphazard arrangements, focusing on space, volumes, and colors. French Cubist Fernand Leger strongly influenced the movement, especially because he knew many American artists.

The Terra clearly shows his influence by displaying Leger’s “Typographer,” “Compass,” and “Composition” in close proximity to the geometric works of American Patrick Henry Bruce. Several other paintings, especially those by Charles Demuth, show factories and other technological and industrial developments of the era, thus representing the technological influence that America was having over Europe at the time. This section ends with sculptures of John Storrs, who depicts various objects and skyscrapers with sharp corners and cubes. His “Gerndarme [Policeman], ” for instance, is a black-and-white cubed interpretation of an everyday policeman.

The second section focuses on Geometric Abstraction, a movement which employed geometric shapes in a non-objective sense, meaning that the shapes did not reference the material world. Again, the Terra displays two of the contributing European artists; Frenchman Jean Helion’s “Composition”, and Dutchman Piet Mondrian’s “Lozenge Composition” are included. Highlights include Charles Biederman’s “#15,” which is a flat, inventive sculpture known as a Construction. The Terra also displays one of Alexander Calder’s famous mobiles, which were geometrically influenced by Mondrian’s paintings of lines and boxes.

Upstairs, the Geometric Abstraction area continues with artists such as William Einstein, Carl Holty, and Gertrude Greene. Well represented are the works of the New Yorkers who were influenced by the geometric and cubic developments in Paris; these artists later became known as the Park Avenue Cubists.

The section depicting Surrealism—that reality-bending, Freudian-influenced style which had its locus in Paris—primarily featured two of America’s most famous Surrealists: Man Ray and Kay Sage. Throughout his career, Man Ray experimented with photographic arts, and eventually developed the “Rayograph,” which was a photographic-type print that was made not with a camera, but rather by placing an object directly on photographic paper and exposing it to light. A large number of these “Rayographs” line the walls, which is very appropriate considering that Man Ray developed this technique in Paris, and exhibited his developments at the first Surrealist show in Paris. Kay Sage was an American Surrealist who moved to Paris in 1937, and several of her paintings are on display.

The exhibit concludes with a series of interesting portraits of the time by both French and American artists. As a whole, the works of the Terra exhibit are informative, well organized, and well chosen, as they include pieces from many of America’s artists in Paris, as well as works from European artists. Patrons can view the exhibit until June 27.

Beware: art lovers will not be able to step inside the Terra for much longer than that June date. The Terra Foundation of the Arts has decided that the museum will remain open only until October 31, 2004. At that point, many of the museum’s 700 works will be loaned to the Art Institute of Chicago. Others will be displayed at the Musée d’Art Américain Giverny, which is the sister museum of the Terra, located in Paris. The Foundation has limited funds, and it decided to refocus activities on promoting American art, rather than keeping the Chicago museum open.

Sadly, Chicagoans will soon have one less museum to visit. However, they now have all the more reason to view the permanent collection—as well as this current special exhibit—as soon as possible.