Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Norton’s “American Modernism” Exhibit Exalts in Artistic Freedom

When I would think of the most influential period for nonrepresentational American art, my mental beeline tended to zip to the post-World War II boom, and the coterie of mostly white men making muscular work that shook up the status quo: Johns and Rothko and de Kooning and Pollock and Stella, and on and on.

Perhaps the chief success of the Norton Museum’s remarkable new exhibition “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” is that it turns back the clock, revealing more progenitors to the postwar renegades than most of us probably knew existed. Culling its work from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, and focusing only on the period of 1900 to 1930, “At the Dawn of a New Age” lives up to its wondrous and aspirational title.

There are instantly familiar names from this period, to be sure: Most appreciators of the visual arts know about Georgia O’Keeffe and Man Ray, who are duly represented at the Norton. But the novelty of this curated survey is the more obscure figures it exalts, revealing that in the decades leading up to the bold disrupters of the ‘50s, unsung artists were testing waters far from the shore of realism, and indeed laying the groundwork for what was to come.

In fact, these works still feel bold today. There’s no better way to describe Stanton MacDonald-Wright—whose 1918 “Oriental – Synchrony in Blue-Green” suggests a goulash of geometric shapes, as if viewed through a kaleidoscope in a dream—as an artist on the vanguard of the new. The same can be said of E.E. Cummings, clearly as formidable a painter as he was a poet: His “Noise Number 13” is a phantasmagoric vision in which spiraling shapes and little eyeballs swirl intoxicatingly around a central white vortex. Every bit as impactful is Max Weber’s “Chinese Restaurant,” a precise mishmash—a controlled busyness—of layer atop layer, suggesting its title subject only inasmuch as a jazz instrumentalist’s flights of improvisation reflect the names given to their composition.

“Painting” by Patrick Henry Bruce

There is enough variety of tone, texture and technique in “At the Dawn of a New Age” that its collective sensation is one of a fracturing, with universally accepted styles splintering into personal, individualized visions of the world. The Op Art movement would take hold in the 1960s, but Patrick Henry Bruce’s anonymously titled “Painting” from this exhibition forecasts its eye-tricking tendency. His shapes, like a still-life of discarded children’s blocks, offer the illusion of 3D image.

“Woods in Autumn” by William Zorach

With its heightened colors, Oscar Bluemner’s “Space Motive, A New Jersey Valley” favors a vivid, comic-book-style expressionism. In William Zorach’s “Woods in Autumn,” his title landscape appears to be melting, as if the spectator were briefly dosed with LSD. Albert Bloch’s “Mountain” is its own hallucinogenic vision, showing us a traveler as the only dark mass entering a realm of hills and mountains divorced from the true colors of Mother Nature. Carl Newman’s “Bathers” is a similarly Edenic vision but is perhaps even bolder: He paints a rainbow as a fixture as permanent as his mountain and lakes, in essence capturing what art can do so well: solidify the ephemeral.

Ben Benn’s “Cowboy and Horse”

When there are human forms in “At the Dawn of a New Age,” they are often deconstructed in one way or another, as in Charles G. Shaw’s delightful “Self-Portrait,” a blocky cubist rendering of his visage. Ben Benn’s “Cowboy and Horse,” with its shrouded black-hatted figure atop a white horse, plays with color contrast and western mythology. So does Henry Fitch Taylor’s “The Parade,” another cubist take on an abstracted rider and equine.

While paintings dominate the exhibition, striking examples of other media include Richmond Barthe’s “African Dancer,” a sculpture of the title figure in a state of ecstatic rhythm; Elie Nadelman’s “Spring,” a bronze relief; and an entire Tarot deck illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black and White”

Even the familiar artists in this exhibition yield new insights. Far from a more quintessential image of undulating flower petals or a New Mexican landscape, Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black and White” is stark but no less transfixing. A textbook study in shading and perspective, the image resembles a paper airplane hurtling into a mysterious cosmos.

If there’s one word to encompass everything in this multifaceted exhibition, it would be free. These artists championed a new way of seeing beyond the tired representational realism of generations past, working perhaps from their mind’s eyes, from their third eyes, from their subconscious. However inspiration struck, their creative kismet is a gift to us all.

“At the Dawn of a New Age” runs through July 16 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission to this special exhibition is $5, plus a general admission ticket. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit

For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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