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American Vanguard at the Amon Carter Museum

American Vanguards at the Amon Carter Museum focuses on an association of artists who dubbed themselves the “Three Musketeers:” John Graham, Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis.  When a fourth member was added (Willem de Kooning), the group doubled down on their lack of originality to become the “Four Musketeers.”  The group’s appropriation of their moniker is in some ways fitting for their association, as their styles from the interwar period are more borrowed than original.

That is actually very much the point of the exhibition. Before becoming leaders in the art world, they were followers, borrowing heavily from the trends popular in Paris from truly avant garde groups.

As an exhibition, American Vanguards is an unusual concept.  It centers around artist, collector, and all around Gertrude Stein type figure who became the nucleus of the Musketeers: John Graham.  The art work doesn’t feel tied to a place, and it doesn’t reflect a unified style.  What comes across more than anything is all of the artists trying on the artistic fashions of the day.

But what were the styles of the day?  What was happening in Paris?  Why was it important?  And most importantly, what were the original innovations of the American Vanguard as they became a part of the post-war, world vanguard.  By limiting the focus to the so-called ‘American Vanguard,’ in a museum that focuses exclusively on American Art, this crucial context is lost.   The exhibition may seem disorienting if you don’t have a sense for the European styles practically piling up on top of each other in the first half of the 20th century.

The interwar years (my favorite period of art history) was an exciting time to be an artist.  The salon system that controlled what artists painted and how they painted it was becoming a stuffy, ossified institution after finding itself on the wrong side of history vis a vis the Impressionists.  At the same time, artists were organizing themselves into groups to take part in a thrilling dialogue with a fascinating period in history.

Jan Matulka (1890–1972)
Composition, ca. 1930
Oil on canvas
©Estate of Jan Matulka
Collection of Bunty and Tom Armstrong

America, even New York, was at the periphery of this world. America wouldn’t become the center for avant garde art until after WWII.  This disconnect with the real vanguard (in Paris) is clearly visible in the art.  Stuart Davis paints scenes from Paris over and over again; Jan Matulka’s paintings are chalked so full of surrealist images that they feel more like a catalog of surrealism.

As good art lovers, we all know to abhor museum plaques because they get in the way of appreciating the art.  In this case, the reverse may be true.  It is very interesting to pick out artists to follow through the exhibition and focus on their evolution.  The evolution of Stuart Davis’s paintings or an almost devolution of de Kooning paintings (my favorite of the show) are excellent examples.  The lack of organization is an opportunity for the viewer to be in the driver’s seat.  If you are attracted by the irrepressible color palate of Stuart Davis for example, you will be delighted by Lee Krasner’s twin paintings.

If you are attracted by the rich impasto texture of John Graham’s paintings looks for the sand incorporated into the paint throughout the first gallery.  There is no question that you will find something in American Vanguards to love.  That attraction to a
painting or an artist is the key to unlocking the evolution that American Vanguards is trying to demonstrate.  The more you wander in American Vanguards the more it starts to click after wander – and it is worth those extra steps.

The twin Krasners in the foreground.

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