By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
It’s the unanticipated pleasures — the wild cards — that make or break any group show, and in this regard, “The Modern West” comes off extraordinarily well. The surreal, over-articulated late-’30s “Erosion” paintings by eco-propagandist Alexandre Hogue, Raymond Jonson’s abstract-spiritualist Cliff Dwellings No. 3(1927), Seldon Giles’ hypersaturated explorations of “Joyism,” Gottardo Piazzoni’s twin immersive 1915 land-and-seascapes, and Vance Kirkland’s WWII-era watercolor Colorado Rocky Mountain bummers (strangely, the next-to-last works in the show) all pack a satisfying surprise wallop. The image chosen for the ubiquitous streetlight banners — John Twatchman’s virtually nonfigurative Emerald Pool, Yellowstone (c. 1895) — is also a remarkable revelation.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Evening Star No. II (1917)The idiosyncrasy of these local visions puts them at odds with the neatly dovetailing bicoastal Modernisms theory. I think what caught me about Stuart Davis’ painting was that it encapsulates the underlying and unspoken thesis embodied by “The Modern West” — the need for the East Coast intelligentsia to establish and maintain the West as a permanent Other, a chaotic, exotic frontier at odds with the lofty achievements of the Civilized World. While they may have begun as good-faith attempts to respond creatively to the Pacific Vibration, many of the works here function only to reinforce the subordinate role Western American Modernism has been assigned in relation to its Manhattan counterpart. And it isn’t the reverse-carpetbagging Pollocks and Stills — whose lives and works served neatly as tokens of Western compliance — who truly represent the West.
It’s O’Keeffe who points to the final frontier. As someone who chose West over East, she exemplifies the truly unorthodox view that the Modernism of New Mexico, California and the Pacific Northwest may well have constituted a more authentic and original vision of Modern Art than what was cooked up in New York. Specifically, the strain of theosophical abstraction surveyed in Maurice Tuchman’s LACMA 1986 show “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” where artists like Agnes Pelton (where the hell is she in “The Modern West”?!) and Lee Mullican (ditto) trumped the formalism of Eastern secular materialists with works that both looked good and laid claim to a deeper transpersonal function. It’s about time for some West Coast museum to put together a traveling exhibit making that revolutionary argument. But it probably wouldn’t make it past Kansas City.
THE MODERN WEST: American Landscapes, 1890–1950|RE-SITE-ING THE WEST | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through June 3
Raymond Jonson, Cliff Dwellings No. 3 (1927)