Marsden Hartley, Landscape Fantasy (1923)About halfway through “The Modern West,” you come upon a very peculiar painting by Stuart Davis. Davis — the quintessential urban East Coast modernist painter, whose parents were a sculptress and the art director of a Philadelphia newspaper — had studied with the Ashcan School in New York and been included in the infamous 1913 Armory Show while still a teenager. By the time he came west in 1923 to spend a few months in New Mexico, he had already established his distinctive Pop cubism with signal works like Lucky Strike — a droll rendering of a flattened cigarette pack.

Apparently, like most of us, Davis was initially quite overwhelmed by the surreal forms, alien colors and disorienting light of the landscape surrounding Santa Fe. He later recalled not being able to get much painting done “because the place itself was so interesting… always there in such a dominating way. You always have to look at it.” Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in his New Mexican Landscape (1923), which remedies the vertiginous agoraphobia of the burnt primary-striped desert by painting it in a wonkily shaped neutral-gray border, like a picture or window frame, containing and defining it in terms of the picturesque. Unable or unwilling to tackle the actual landscape, Davis handled it as a pictorial convention — qualifying him as a prototypical postmodernist, if you believe in such things.

Currently holding down the main floor of LACMA’s Hammer Building, “The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890–1950” was assembled by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to demonstrate the revolutionary argument that American Modernism was substantially influenced by the art of the West, contrary to the standard received notion of European expats in Manhattan yada yada. There are a couple of problems with this agenda. Technically west of the Mississippi, Houston — founded by New York real estate speculators and home of the Menil Foundation (Rothko, Warhol, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Twombly . . . ) — is definitely an East Coast town; you just have to watch a couple of minutes of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to get that. Nobody trusts a coast traitor.

And “The Modern West”’s presumed unorthodoxy seems more than a little blinkered by this geographical sleight of hand. Almost every one of the scores of regionalist historical exhibits I’ve seen on the left coast have been predicated on the same premise. The fact that they seldom travel past the Great Divide let alone the Mighty Mississip may have something to do with “The Modern West”’s claims to controversy, but bicoastals like Pollock, Philip Guston and Clyfford Still were always welcome to lend their visions to the Manhattan paint-as-paint juggernaut, bolstering NYC’s centrality while adding the suggestion that the historical inevitability of formalist reductivism was a culture-wide phenomenon. Back East, Jackson Pollock’s cowpoke-savant shtick was a major marketing point, not a So-Dark-the-Con-of-Man secret, and his relationship to Navajo sand painting is such a cliché that art historians now write papers debunking it.

Jackson Pollack, Night Mist (1944-1945)On top of this, “The Modern West” seems to have a very flexible concept of what constitutes “Western Art.” Sometimes it’s art made by people who happen to live in the geographical region, including Native Americans. Sometimes it’s depictions of the Western landscape by Easterners like Davis or Marsden Hartley. Sometimes it’s cowboy art. But then sometimes it’s Georgia O’Keeffe. In spite of her calendar and coffee-table fame, O’Keeffe remains one of the most underrated of modern American painters — mostly because she was a lady, but in part due to the fact that she, unlike Davis or Frederic Remington, was able to carve out a place in the Western landscape unmediated by quotation marks. Her major work in the show — the phenomenal Black Cross With Stars and Blue (1929) — glows like a dark beacon when first glimpsed from across the room.

And it’s not the only powerful work in the exhibit. Hartley’s nearby Landscape, New Mexico (1919) is a turbulent, dynamic cascade of near-abstract forms and free-floating color, though it was painted in New York after he fled his brief encounter with the Taos scene in disgust. Several other O’Keeffe paintings — lesser only in comparison to Black Cross — are included. There’s an epic Still, a nice breakthrough-period Pollock (1945’s Night Mist — in addition to a not-so-great 1948 drip painting and the kooky little 1934 Thomas Hart Benton–influenced dreamscape Going West) and a very nice Mark Tobey calligraphic aggregation. There’s an awesome hallucinatory aerial farmland vista of Spring Turning (1936 — the height of Dust Bowl season) by the always-enigmatic Grant Wood, and Clayton Price’s frequently shown but always refreshing Coastline (1924), depicting a craggy Monterey oceanfront in epileptically slathered impastos. I was transfixed by Remington’s The Herd Boy (1905) until an elderly couple cooed, “Look at the horse’s eye! Such detail!”

Thomas Hart Benton, Boomtown (1927-8)The photographs constitute an exhibit in themselves, with solid fare from Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, as well as surprising contributions from Eadweard Muybridge and Edward Steichen and stellar compositions from Carleton E. Watkins (1867’s Cape Horn, Near Celio) and O’Keeffe’s close friend Marjorie Content (1934’s Kansas — those with gout-plagued knees will particularly appreciate the 18-inches-from-the-floor installation strategy). A complementary show in the upstairs gallery culled from LACMA’s permanent collection, titled “Re-SITE-ing the West,” throws some amazing shit into the mix, including William Garnett’s Two Trees on Hill With Shadows, Paso Robles, California (1974), a grid of large reprints (delicious sacrilege!) from Ed Ruscha’s 1967 book ThirtyfourParking Lots in Los Angeles, and Anthony Hernandez’s butt-strewn diptych Landscapes for the Homeless #24 (1989). Definitely worth the escalator ride.

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)

LA Weekly