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Six views of America

Published 18 January 2017

As a new term in the White House divides America, we look back to another time of social upheaval and economic anxiety. Here are six snapshots of a changing country, as depicted by 1930s artists in the RA’s upcoming exhibition, ‘America after the Fall’, and then by contemporary painters in 21st century USA.

  • In 1946, a US Senate subcommittee voiced their concerns about an important exhibition of recent American art due to tour Europe: they feared that paintings from the 1930s depicted the country as “a drab, ugly place, filled with drab, ugly people”. Admittedly, the 1930s had been a tough decade. The 1929 Wall Street Crash had brought about worldwide economic depression, and America’s Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was reluctant to intervene in the mass unemployment, rising personal debt and homelessness that swept across the country. By 1933, the nation was ready for change and eagerly elected Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who campaigned on the promise of direct federal intervention. In between “fireside chats” broadcast to the nation over the radio, Roosevelt swiftly implemented his New Deal: soup kitchens, clothing grants, public works, increased wages, job provision and bank regulations eventually pulled America out of despair. In the uncertain ferment of depression and recovery, many artists began to ask how America might be captured in a single image – drab, ugly, or otherwise. Here are six examples of such images from the RA’s upcoming exhibition, America after the Fall.

  • Bright lights, big city

    Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939
    “The place was boiling… with crowds lined up at the frankfurter stands and gawking at the fur models… the usual groups in argument before the automat, the usual thick crowd pouring round and round the park in search of something, anything, that might be in the stores”. Writer and activist Alfred Kazin’s description of New York in the 1930s is familiar: the city pulsed with throngs of people drawn to the opportunity and promise of the big city, fleeing from the hardships of America’s rural life, or from the spread of Fascism and Communism in Europe. Hopper painted New York Movie in 1939 – the year that WWII broke out in Europe, and the year that Hollywood gave America the Technicolor marvels of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. A tip-off from Hopper’s record book scrawls about “snowy mountain tops” suggests we’re privy to a screening of Frank Capra’s 1937 movie, Lost Horizon, in which a plane crashes in the Tibetan mountains and its passengers discover Shangri-La – a utopian society dedicated to preserving humanity from an impending world war. The surrealist André Breton admired Hopper’s usher because she was “lost in a dream beyond the confounding things happening to others”. Escapism was certainly on the American mind.

  • Edward Hopper, New York Movie

    Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939.

    Oil on canvas. 81.9 x 101.9 cm. Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 1941. © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

  • The machine age

    Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930
    The American landscape seen by Charles Sheeler was man-made but devoid of man himself – perhaps better described as machine-made, in fact. His industrial plant seems generic and anonymous, but is actually a detailed study of the Ford Motor Company plant near Detroit – lauded by Vanity Fair as “the most significant public monument in America”, for its work pioneering mass production. Ford replaced skilled workers with automated assembly lines, making consumer goods more affordable for Americans, and encouraging “a culture hypnotised by the gorged stream of new things to buy”, according to sociologist Robert Lynd. American Landscape was painted from Sheeler’s many photographs of the plant, which were themselves exhibited in influential European exhibitions. Like a photograph, it’s hard to see a trace of brushstrokes among the painting’s smooth surfaces and hard, geometric lines: the craftsman’s touch has been removed from the work just as it had been removed from the country’s factories. The painting encapsulates opposing attitudes to the new machine-driven society: a utopian, efficient, modern society, but also a dehumanised, polluted landscape.

  • Charles Sheeler, American Landscape

    Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930.

    Oil on canvas. 61 x 78.7 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Abby Aldrick Rockefeller, 1934 Photo © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

  • Rural idyll

    Georgia O‘Keeffe, Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, 1931
    Rural life in the 1930s was hard: the modest plough had been replaced by the machine and the land was spent. Barren fields were subjected to a decade of drought and high winds: the Great Plains became known as the Dust Bowl of America. In spite of this, many artists painted a romanticised view of America’s rolling, fertile hills, worked by honest, church-going farmers using traditional, handmade tools in harmony with the landscape. By contrast, Georgia O’Keeffe’s skull paintings acknowledged that “There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones”. Discussing her experimental, progressive style, the artist said: “People wanted to ‘do’ the American scene… and some of the current ideas about the American scene struck me as pretty ridiculous. To them, the American scene was a dilapidated house with a broken down buckboard out front and a horse that looked like a skeleton… So, in a way, that cow’s skull was my joke on the American scene…”.

  • Georgia O'Keeffe, Cow's Skull with Calico Roses

    Georgia O'Keeffe, Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, 1931.

    Oil on canvas. 91.5 x 61 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1947.712. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2017.

  • The mythic past

    Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936
    Today’s disenchanted voters aren’t the first to look back to the past for answers; the traditional rural scenes that had seemed so ridiculous to O’Keeffe were part of a wider sentimental tendency sweeping across white America in the 1930s. Looking back provided a nostalgic comfort for many caught in the decade’s turmoil: society seemed simpler, more authentic, more “American”. Other marginalised groups, however, set about broadening the narratives of American history to include their own stories. Aaron Douglas’ paintings and murals celebrated African-American histories in mainstream culture and public spaces. The artist – often dubbed “the father of African-American art” – was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of creativity in literature, poetry, art and music that emerged from new black communities in major cities. The chained arms at the bottom of Aspiration are a reminder that the foundations of American society were built on slave labour, but the hands are raised toward the possibility of different futures. As fellow Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke wrote of the period, “Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self determination”.

  • Aaron Douglas, Aspiration

    Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936.

    Oil on canvas. 152.5 x 152.5 cm. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, the estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs Jr., the Museum Society Auxiliary, American Art Trust Fund, Unrestricted Art Trust Fund, partial gift of Dr. Ernest A. Bates, Sharon Bell, Jo-Ann Beverly, Barbara Carleton, Dr. And Mrs. Arthur H. Coleman, Dr. and Mrs. Coyness Ennix, Jr., Nicole Y. Ennix, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Francois, Dennis L. Franklin, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell C. Gillette, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Goodyear, Zuretti L. Goosby, Marion E. Greene, Mrs. Vivian S. W. Hambrick, Laurie Gibbs Harris, Arlene Hollis, Louis A. and Letha Jeanpierre, Daniel and Jackie Johnson, Jr., Stephen L. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lathan, Lewis & Ribbs Mortuary Garden Chapel, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Love, Glenn R. Nance, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Parker III, Mr. and Mrs. Carr T. Preston, Fannie Preston, Pamela R. Ransom, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Reed, San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Chapter of Links, Inc., San Francisco Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Dr. Ella Mae Simmons, Mr. Calvin R. Swinson, Joseph B. Williams, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Wilsey, and the people of the Bay Area, 1997.84. © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, and DACS, London, 2017.

  • Shattered dreams

    Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, Phoenix, 1935
    While an exhausted America set about recovering from worldwide economic depression, Fascism took hold in Italy, Germany and Spain, and Communism swept across Russia. It was perhaps the only time in history that Americans seriously considered socialism and Communism as a viable alternative, including Guglielmi, the radical self-proclaimed “proletarian surrealist”. Surrealism, the artist said, was the best expression of “our decaying society”. He found no shortage of left-wing venues to exhibit Phoenix: the painting first went on display in 1935 at New York’s John Reed Club, whose members had vowed to defend the Soviet Union and join the fight against Fascism. Lenin and his ideology would rise like a phoenix, just as the corn in front of Lenin’s portrait rises from the barren wasteland of capitalism. Smoke from the chimneys in the distance suggests that industry rattles on despite no sign of human life – except the flayed hand protruding from the rubble: a stark contrast to the outstretched hands in Aaron Douglas’ Aspiration, above.

  • Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, Phoenix (Portrait in the Desert; Lenin)

    Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, Phoenix (Portrait in the Desert; Lenin), 1935.

    Oil on canvas. 76.2 x 63.8 cm. Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, NAA-Nelle Cochrane Woods Memorial.

  • The road ahead

    Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1938-41
    Fleeting interests in socialism or Communism swiftly faded as prosperity returned in the 1940s. The government’s well-named “House Un-American Activities Committee” derided more than 350 “Communist” artists of recent years, and in their place was pure creativity: new, free, individual, inventive and distinctly American. The stage was set for Jackson Pollock and his spirited contemporaries. Untitled (1938-41) was clearly influenced by Picasso’s fiercely political Guernica, which depicted Spanish civilians being bombed by the German air force in the 1930s Spanish Civil War. Pollock saw the painting when it travelled to New York in 1939, yet as art historian Stephen Polcari remarked, Pollock’s politics remained “at best of the parlour and not the activist variety”. Unspoilt by social concerns, the bold colours and gestures of Abstract Expressionism became the art of business patrons, corporate offices and bank lobbies. Propelled by the unregulated steam of these corporations, America turned its back on the “drab, ugly” 1930s, and leapt into the very period echoed in the current president’s cries to “make America great again”.

  • Jackson Pollock, Untitled

    Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c.1938–41.

    Oil on linen. 56.5 x 127.5 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund; estate of Florene May Schoenborn; through prior acquisitions of Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison, Marguerita S. Ritman, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Borland, and Mary L. and Leigh B. Block, 1998.522 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017.

  • Six views of America today

    As Paul Mason recently wrote in the Guardian, “this is not the 1930s with drones and trolls”. But in a time of perhaps comparable tumult, contemporary US painters are still using the medium to depict and engage with the country’s sociopolitical realities. Here are six contemporary views of the USA through the eyes of today’s painters.

    • Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Michelle Donaldson

      Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Michelle Donaldson, 2015.

      Oil on canvas. 139 x 118.5 cm. Copyright: Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Kehinde Wiley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

      Kehinde Wiley

      While studying at Yale University School of Art, Wiley’s painting “became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity…” The people in his paintings, many cast on the streets of New York, are “assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World.” As Wiley said in a recent interview, “if Black Lives Matter, they deserve to be in paintings.”

    • Ella Kruglyanskaya, Menu

      Ella Kruglyanskaya, Menu, 2012.

      Oil and oil bar on linen. © Ella Kruglyanskaya. Courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

      Ella Kruglyanskaya

      Like many American artists of the 1930s and today, Kruglyanskaya began life elsewhere and emigrated to the USA. The Latvian-born artist gives prominence to under-represented and devalued female relationships, friendships and dialogues in her paintings. Her depictions of female bodies occupy the entire frame, “grappling with art history’s body-centric fixation with the female form and returning the male gaze with both an amused stare and at times a beady glare”, writes art critic Louisa Buck in the Telegraph.

    • Theaster Gates, Water Proof: anti-racist action painting

      Theaster Gates, Water Proof: anti-racist action painting, 2016.

      Wood, tar paper, various foils and tar. 246 x 246 x 14.5 cm. © Theaster Gates. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

      Theaster Gates

      Gates’ politics are not contained within his paintings: as well as creating art in a range of other mediums, he has also trained as an urban planner, and works as an urbanist and facilitator. In his paintings made with thick layers of roofing felt, rubber and tar, the artist draws contemporary conversations about blackness into the history of the 1968 Chicago race riots, when his father enacted a quiet, alternative form of protest by tarring roofs as the riots raged. As Su Wu recently wrote in the Guardian, the tar paintings “bind mark-making to its labours. The paintings situate black resilience and longing within the history of abstraction.” That abstraction, says Gates, is “an inability to face the horrors of violence, and a desire to sing a new steadier song.”

    • Julie Mehretu, Looking Back to a Bright New Future

      Julie Mehretu, Looking Back to a Bright New Future, 2003.

      Ink and acrylic on canvas. 241.3 x 302.3 cm. © Julie Mehretu. Photo © Cameron Wittig Courtesy White Cube.

      Julie Mehretu

      Mehretu often explores how the city and its people are changed by current events. As the American-Nigerian artist said a few years ago, “it sounds naive, but before the Bush administration and September 11, there was this underlying feeling that the world was progressing in a particular way, and different cities were developing and morphing into this kind of unified pseudo-capitalist dream… That false perspective and weird hope was crushed in the last few years”. She describes her map- or architectural-like paintings as “knots”, “nests” or “gnarled webs” in which “space is deflated and conflated.”

    • Henry Taylor, Eldridge Cleaver

      Henry Taylor, Eldridge Cleaver, 2007.

      Acrylic on canvas. 76 x 95 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

      Henry Taylor

      Taylor’s large-scale figurative works are a hybrid of portraiture and history painting, commemorating heroes of the Civil Rights and Black Panther movements, as well as martyrs to racially-motivated violence and police brutality. The subject of this painting, Eldridge Cleaver, was a cultural critic and early leader of the Black Panthers, and was imprisoned for many years. Taylor’s intimate style and thick brushwork often draws comparison with the figurative work of Alice Neel, whose 1930s paintings of political figures can be seen in America after the Fall.

    • Grace Weaver, see-saw

      Grace Weaver, see-saw, 2016.

      Oil on canvas. 216 x 254 cm. Courtesy Soy Capita?n, Berlin. Photo: Charles Benton.

      Grace Weaver

      The colours and characters of Weaver’s paintings are an “embrace of girliness”, tipping into the territory of the “too-sweet”, in the words of the artist. She explains this style, and her focus on the life experiences of “a 20-something girl in 21st century America” through the words of the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, who suggests cute is “not just an aestheticisation but an eroticisation of powerlessness.” Weaver is interested in how the prototype of the young woman is both constructed and belittled by contemporary culture.