Whitney Museum Re-Informs Our Modernist Gaze, Celebrating Artists Who Have Been Under-Represented In Art History Alongside Leading Masters
An imposing figure emerges as a mountain, erupting from the sea, symbolically marrying humankind and nature. Ocean waves mingle with the skyline, evoking mysticism.
My 12-year-old son, Michael Alexander, was drawn in by the sinewy lines and the ethereal colors of Adele Watson’s Untitled (Mountain Island Monk), declaring it his favorite work in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism. On view through February 26, 2023, the exhibition features more than 60 works by more than 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, this idea that people were really at the dawn of something new, something that hadn’t happened before. They’re rejecting the past, and there was a sense of unlimited opportunity, unlimited possibilities. And the work reflects that through these bright colors and sensual shapes and exploding forms,” said curator Barbara Haskell.
“The show is also one that allows the Whitney to reassess its collection and to reassess the period the show will include famous artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, artists that are fairly known to the public. But it will also include artists who were equally groundbreaking at that moment, but have been largely forgotten, and in some cases have been in storage for decades,” Haskell said in the audio guide for the exhibition. “There’s some work in the exhibition that has only been shown once the entire time we’ve had it at the museum. And we’ve also been able to use the exhibition as an occasion to acquire new work, to fill in the gaps that still exist.”
Painted circa 1935-1945, Untitled (Mountain Island Monk) was gifted to the Whitney in 2020 by Lydia E. Ringwald. A 1930 exploration of Zion National Park in Utah inspired Watson’s shift toward anthropomorphism, examining human relationships with nature, depicting figures growing from rock formations and faces appearing on mountains.
Born in 1873 in Toledo, Ohio, Watson moved in 1880 to Pasadena, California, after her father died. She studied at the Art Students League of New York as a young adult, and returned to California in 1917, and then traveled to Paris to study with French painter Raphaël Collin and became friends with Khalil Gibran. Best known as the author of The Prophet, a wildly 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 pictures, watercolors, and drawings, including at least one graphite on board portrait of Watson.
Gibran’s allegorical writing had a powerful impact on Watson, who shared his deep affinity for nature. Learning about Watson only after her inclusion in this informative and inspiring exhibition, I can’t help but imagine that the Mountain Island Monk figure may be a symbolic homage to Gibran, who became a towering literary figure also regarded as a philosopher, a title he eschewed.
I have passed a mountain peak and my soul is soaring in the
Firmament of complete and unbound 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 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 her work, which is also in the collection of the Orange County Museum of Art.
Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism also features a circa 1916–1925 work by Watson, Untitled (Figure Floating on Lake), a 2021 gift from Ringwald. In Watson’s earlier work, the figures and landscapes were distinct, yet her exploration of symbolism was already a source of self-examination and enlightenment.
We re-examine art history through a new lens, where recognizable works by well-known artists such as Oscar Bluemner, Elie Nadelman, and Charles Burchfield, are displayed alongside works by artists who have been grossly under-represented for decades or whose legacies have been relegated to footnotes. We gain insight into the trailblazing careers of artists such as Henrietta Shore, Charles Duncan, Yun Gee, Manierre Dawson, Blanche Lazzell, Ben Benn, Isami Doi, and Albert Bloch, who have been left out of the leading 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, this idea that people were really at the dawn of something new, something that hadn’t happened before,” said Haskell. “They’re rejecting the past, and there was a sense of unlimited opportunity, unlimited possibilities. And the work reflects that through these bright colors and sensual shapes and exploding forms.”
We’re enthralled by the stark elegance and intricacy of Aaron Douglas’ woodcuts created to illustrate scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which premiered in 1920 and was revived in 1925 with Douglas’s friend Paul Robeson in the title role. The prints exemplify Douglas’ flat, abstracted silhouettes in black and white borrowing from Art Deco, folk art cutouts, and Egyptian tomb paintings. Less complicated versions of these images were published alongside Alain Locke’s 1926 article The Negro and the American Stage in Theater Arts Monthly and his 1927 book Plays of Negro Life.
Douglas moved to Harlem from the Midwest in 1925 and rocketed to prominence as a graphic artist of the Harlem Renaissance, designing covers for the two top African American magazines and jackets for books by Black writers.
“In many ways, Aaron Douglas was before his time in the telling of African Americans having a deeper history than one of enslavement in the United States,” writer and art historian LeRonn Brooks said in the audio guide.