America's Cool Modernism - O'Keeffe to Hopper | Ashmolean

I just love Edward Hopper - and I’m not sorry about that, sometimes popular things are also really good. More generally, I love the various early 20th century movements of artists reacting to machinery, industry and the burgeoning suburbs (see earlier posts on Sironi and Kupka.) The ‘America after the Fall’ exhibition at the Royal Academy was hands down my favourite show of last year. So I was gagging to see this exhibition from the moment I first read about it.

Predictably I loved it, from the gorgeous (and iconic) Hopper etchings, to daffy Helen Torr, to Charles Sheeler’s perfectly reverant factories, to Ralston Crawford’s monolithic grain tubs, to a couple of totally irresistible Stuart Davises. I spent hours in there, mainly in the room dealing with the Precisionists: a 20s/30s group concerned with the cool, perfect cities. New to me was George Ault, who contributed two perfectly sinister little paintings, including this one, of a factory in Hoboken at dusk.

Installation view

If Hopper provides the creep factor with his urban landscapes, Ault’s abandoned streets and buildings shade into outright dread. Ault once referred to skyscrapers as the “tombstones of capitalism” and considered the industrialized American city “the Inferno without the fire”. He worked during the Depression, and it’s no coincidence that his factory is utterly empty of people or, well, industry. Its beauty is in its silence, its very perfection an implied threat.

The Precisionists worked to celebrate the new landscape of skyscrapers and factories, through apparently realist, but actually stiff and hard-edged, depictions. Everything seems perfectly clean and just-so. Visible brush strokes are unusual. And it’s this very perfection that lends a lot of the work, Ault’s definitely included, with a clammy, claustrophobic air.

They didn’t reflect reality, though. Elsewhere in the show is a showing of ‘Manhatta’, an avant-garde film shot (in part) by Sheeler. Ault was working in New York at around the same time. Far from the icy - even arid - perfection and quietude of both men’s painted work, the city the film depicts is unbelievably filthy, striated with gungy factory smoke, the buildings sooty and shopworn.

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper is at the Ashmoleoan (Oxford). 23 March - 22 July 2018.