Interests in industry, the land, history, and raucous urban nightlife were all features of 1930s America, so of course they were reflected in the music and the visual arts of the era. Together, the interests provide a nice curatorial frame for the Art Institute’s current exhibit of works from the period, entitled America After the Fall. As deep questions about the nature of art permeated salon circles, musicians like Woodie Guthrie were also providing a new soundtrack for a country that had realized, after the stock market crashed onto the roaring twenties and ushered in the Great Depression in a dustbowl, that America, a shining city on a hill, had somewhere to go but up.
Scarcity had created an interest in shared solutions – big projects such as Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and industries like energy and steel and automobiles brought factories on scales never before seen. Socialism and the Communist Party’s promise of shared abundance were openly discussed as viable governmental solutions to large-scale social ills like urban blight and unemployment and soil erosion. American Ingenuity was, in many ways, operating at its best during these years, and one thing people knew was that we had a great big landscape, from California to the New York Island, in which to try new ideas out.
The Art Institute’s current special exhibit in its Modern Wing capitalizes on its first-rate collection of works by American artists of the era like Grant Wood, Arthur Dove, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and Charles Sheeler by borrowing more of them from museums around the country. My favorite visitor is Marsden Hartley’s rich landscape, “Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2,” a 1939 work on loan from the Met, which typifies the American interest of the time in our broad and breathtaking landscape. In keeping with Hartley’s style, developed alongside that of his dear friend Georgia O’Keefe, also represented in the show, the work explores the ideas of abstraction that permeated the minds of avant-garde artists in New York beginning with the Armory Show in 1913.
Another remarkable composition the exhibit borrowed, this one from the Cincinnati Art Museum, is “Daughters of Revolution,” a 1932 Grant Wood masterpiece (Wood’s best known work “American Gothic” hangs in an adjacent space in the exhibit, brought over from its permanent home in the Institute a few galleries away). “Daughters” chronicles a moment of looking back, a fascination with the great history of America, featuring a famous scene of George Washington in the background, itself a nod to the commemoration of the first president’s 200th birthday being celebrated at the time. Regionalists like Wood and Benton are well-represented in the exhibit.
As I hinted at above, in addition to exploring debauchery and nightlife, the exhibit features music. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a show at the Art Institute that included a distinctive soundtrack that was not itself created as the work of art on display. The soundtrack – pure Americana – provided an extremely useful and evocative addition. Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is a communist manifesto of sorts, its folksy sensibilities reminding us that we’re all in this thing, better or worse, together. The Jazz that emanated from America’s bustling urban centers and the Swing derivatives that were emanating from artists like Duke Ellington were remarkable American innovations that, like the canvases, mirrored the big new ideas and industries of the era. Triumphant compositions of greats like Aaron Copland reminded Americans that monumental musical works were not the exclusive province of Europe. Overall, the music added a whole dimension to the show’s layered themes.
I also want to give a nod to the juxtaposition in these galleries of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” an Art Institute staple, with his iconic “Early Sunday Morning,” on loan from the Whitney in New York. What a stunning pair to see together! Profound juxtapositions abound in America After the Fall.
Do take this opportunity to explore this collection of American art the Institute has assembled from an interesting period in our country’s history, on display through September 18. If art requires adversity, surely some of our country’s best was being produced in the 1930s, and the inclusion of music is more than a cherry on top. While you’re at it, cross the hall to explore the photography of Gordon Parks and the narrative work of Ralph Ellison. The pair of exhibits are complimentary in multiple ways.
Thanks for reading.