The Color of Modernism:
The American Fauves at Hollis Taggart Gallery

by J. Bowyer Bell

Hollis Taggart and Vivian Bullaudy should be in line for some splendid commendation for producing on three floors of an East side brownstone a truly world class exhibition: great paintings and indifferent paintings, rare paintings and familiar styles, but all chosen to explain, to teach, to delight. The more than one hundred works reveal what was what and who did it when, back beyond memory, when Cezanne was still a living presence, and the Fauves were hot. And in so doing the gallery has displayed a generation of Americans under the impact of the new, has indicated the role of influence and school. And their effort is not merely for didactic purpose alone, for most importantly the evidence, the theme, the impact of the Fauves is made tangible, is found on the walls: splendid work, rare, forgotten, famous, wonderful.

Once upon a time, the Fauves were the cutting edge of the new. And as had happened before and would again and again and again they were lopped off by the next crop, the cubists and expressionists and the newly New. For a few, short years Matisse and Derain, Dufy, Braque, de Vlaminck and the rest, the great names and those lesser known Friesz and Marquet but still in the history texts, all of these were at the eye of the storm. Their work appalled the everyday, outraged the conservatives, inspired the novel. Some artists were unmoved, a few borrowed this or that, dared this or that, but a generation gobbled up influence whole. These, the influenced, found a method to make a work, to make their own, or at worse to make beauty as did Matisse or Dufy made beauty. Some did that, painted more Matisses or Dufys, and some used Matisse here and there, this way and that, while others deployed Dufy for quite different purposes. The wild beats were tamed to American use.

So the ripples spread out from the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1905 to wash over the art world, the American scene, to drown painters in color, to destroy the limits of the past, to open doors. Some went through and some did not, but few were left untouched by the excitement. And some became the Fauves within the American grain.

Here at Hollis Taggart, we have them all, those who shaped their work to the new school, and those who are included here almost as courtesy those who were about at the times and so inevitably touched by French events even if their work was hardly changed. A few made clones, imitations; some made their own work not unmindful of the French, some made original but lesser paintings, but all were to some degree touched by the French.

The Americans who were touched by the Fauves were in a real sense touched by a passing phenomena, one that made possible the beautiful painting even if the work was seen by most as smears and daubs. Almost as the Americans were painting in the new manner, the new manner was old, the Fauves not as wild as imagined. They were a school soon to be the stuff of history, not the cutting edge. As is always the case, some of the new school suddenly turned old school, shifted perception and adjusted. Some kept to what had been shaped or found, remained within their New- Found World whatever was correct on the scene. Dufy went for charm. Matisse kept much of the faith. A few were touched by cubism, and most not. Those of the next generation, however, had a whole spectrum of choices, for they had not originated the style, had not investment but had instead drawn out capital. And so these American "Fauves" often went on to very different styles, their later signature styles. They became captured by cubism or expressionism or the American landscape.

Now, with the distance of time, the Fauves seemingly had a short shelf life, startled the innocent and appealed to the next generation, but soon disappeared under the cubists and all of that. Their appeal, then and now, was not only that they were new and novel and spectacular, but also that they offered anyone so inclined a way to make a painting the cubists simply offered more, and so lasted longer. This prospect the well-made-painting generates rapidly a school, a second generation, lots of beautiful paintings: for example, the New York School Second Generation or Surrealism exported to Latin America. The great appeal of the Fauves was that a new way to make beauty was there on demand: look, digest, deploy and a really good painting is likely to be the result. And the exhibition at Hollis Taggart is filled with really good paintings that emerged from this new way to paint.

The new, then, often had an enormous ripple effect, reaching out and changing vision and perception, creating other variations and encouraging the emerging generation. Western Art has always been prone to innovation and novelty, been open to the fashion of the times. When communication is quick, Serra can lean a round beam against a wall one day, and two months later I can find someone else using a round beam and a different angle in Tel Aviv. What has been swimming all but underground in London will soon be tanked and displayed in Soho. When communication is slow, an English artist may not discover Cubism for a decade, influence is ineffectual and the art provincial. Irish cubism was influenced by the second generation, Lhote and the rest, and lacked the energy of the new or the intensity of even the second generation. The artists must be ripe to be touched. Communication is not simply a matter of distance and means, but appeal and response.

The English artists wanted to be English not new, not French, not influenced and took only slowly to the modern, looked back to their landscape instead of ahead to formal innovations. And so much English art, like Irish cubism, was slight, provincial, and in all but English texts irrelevant.. Art moves, influence moves, the times move. When ripe and America was ripe for the Fauves what works in Paris will work in Philadelphia or Boston. And Fauvism seemed to have worked.

The work of the Fauves did not go away with Picasso-and-Braque, but moved on and out, corrupted the academic and orthodox, shaped ways to make paintings in far parts, in Scotland or Taos or Kiev. The Fauves in all their variations were an enormous influence: most of all because once seen, the aspirant knew what could be done, and how it might best be done. The Fauves supplied an all-purpose guide book, a way to make paintings, a way into the future. Some Americans would only go so far, some tried the means and methods and went on to other roads some of those routes were far more daring and original and others a loop back into history. What is patent is that many of the Americans were eager enough to be influenced, did not so much want to be American as to be involved in the new, found the academies of the day stifling, and the news out of Paris wondrous. Many were open to be touched by the latest.

At Hollis Taggart, the net has been widely cast to include all those touched by the Fauves along with a couple of Matisse studies to catch the unwary eye. In fact almost all the usual suspects are included including some rare variants, indeed those known only to the few, or those known only for work seemingly untouched by the French Fauves. And for the non-specialist, there is the suspicion that almost no one but Hollis Taggart, Vivian Bullaudy and the author of the catalogue, Professor William H. Gerdts, knew of some of these artists. Ben Benn who lived until 1983, and showed at the Babcock Gallery in New York may be remembered by a few, but who can recall the work of Hugh Breckenridge from Dallas who died in 1917? No matter, they are all here, gathered under one roof surely for the first time an exercise worth the effort.

First, there is simply the work excluding the work-as-examples, the work-as-early or the work-as-didactic. Master works need no context only observation. There are several works that are surely as good as any the artist ever made: Walt Kuhn's Master at Arms of 1915 and Abraham Walkowitz's Woman's Hand of 1908. There are very atypical works from the likes of Stuart Davis and Patrick Henry Bruce and Morgan Russell. Some of the atypical works are interesting and some good almost all come as a surprise. There are works, as well, that in this context take on new dimensions Demuth and O'Keefe. And there are others that really show the fleeting power of influence Joseph Stella or Charles Sheeler who went on to other concerns and major work.

Not everyone is here, but a lot of Americans are represented as well as those known only to the specialists, the texts and their own. Who now knows Lyman Saen or Edward Middleton Manigault? Some of the newly revived are not very interesting, just as some of the familiar are here interesting because the work is unfamiliar; but amid all this there are those unjustly overlooked. A Manierre Dawson whose strange Urns of 1911 somehow blends eccentric Fauve color with early cubism to great effect, or Konrad Cramer's Boat in River of 1911 that makes a boldly colored individual statement, one that absorbs Kandinsky's influence into a personal style and so a nifty painting, very much of its time and still fresh today. the ghost visible in the work.

In fact the whole exhibition is filled with ghosts, those present long forgotten or assigned to texts, but more importantly, those who shaped the visions here displayed. Those artists displayed were all generating paintings only rarely special, unique, sui generis Kuhn and Walkowitz had gobbled influence, digested the received methodology and produced their own. Most of the others were deploying methods and means imported and digested. These ghosts of the present Matisse or Braque but also other modernists, the contemporary Kandinsky or late Cezanne, Van Gogh brush is here as much as Vlaminck's or Marquet's.. The post-impressionists in 1905 or 1915 were still living presence. And even more so those artists who still lived, competed with the Fauves the German expressionists and Picasso moving into cubes. Modernism was moving forward over last year's avant-garde: a truly post-modern time when increasingly the beats were loose in Paris, in Europe.

These were tumultuous times and the Americans were understandably swept up in the froth of the day. Some were in the midst of that froth: Max Weber studied with Matisse in Paris in 1907- 1908, and if others stayed home they were exposed to the new. Stieglitz's 291 Gallery showed Matisse for the first time in 1908. Other Americans were touched later. Some were touched lightly, and others transformed, and many were influenced even as the procession of The New had passed on to others by 1910-1911. When the Armory Show showed the American public The New as constructed in Europe, the most outrage was directed at Marcel Duchamp's cubist nude descending the staircase still the wild beasts were too seen as wild by the American public, still very modern for the academy, for most Americans. For a generation, for the everyday, the Fauves were wild even as their influence faded, and their example was forgotten. A few Americans kept the Fauves' faith, instead made their own work that was no longer wild, but tamed by practice and by the times by a special vision or other influences.

Those artists displayed here, more or less, could be seen as new Fauves and for a decade the Fauves were to remain new, an irritant to the conservative, too advanced even for many advanced Americans. Some of the work, despite the presence of Van Gogh on calendars and Picasso as a household word, would still to the innocent eye seem "modern," and certainly it did so to American artists for a long time.

Now at the end of the century, none seems wild or modern, if many do not seem dated. What was good and fresh at the beginning of the century has traveled well. Those works included before a personal style emerged like Stuart Davis or McDonald Wright may be largely of historical interest, as is the case with Davis or a revelation in craft and insight, as in Macdonald-Wright's super apples in Still Life with Vase and Fruit, 1911/13. Some work long lost might well have stayed in storage or on family walls except that here the very derivative or the essays that failed give substance and feel to the times.

Art is never all super stars nor master works. In a sense bad work, failed work, essays and copies fertilize the arena for others. Here are many minor painters and minor paintings, some with charm and a few without. Mostly Vivian Bullaudy and Hollis Taggart have chosen wisely, chosen lots and lots of wonderful work that matters no matter the Fauves, or what the future assumed.

Much that has been forgotten shown here should not be forgotten, and given that New York is New York, has now probably been remembered well enough to raise auction prices and delight those who loved what time had brought them. Morton Livingston Schamberg, not a household world, with Seascape, 1910/11. and William E. Schumacher with his Floral Still Life, 1916 indicate that the times have been wrong, that as the great work goes into museums there is still good and largely unknown work available. Ask at Taggarts, go look at Taggarts, look at art ideas at work, at influence in art and modern American art emerging, but most of all look at all that good art on the walls.

The gallery has taken the opportunity of the American Fauves to reintroduce the work of Anne Estelle Rice, long neglected, interestingly presented in a small collection of typical works mostly before 1920, but some later. In her most intense years of commitment, Rice chose from the post-impressionists up to the cubists those whose style was convenient for her purpose and made work close to the original, like this painter or that. What happens is that deploying the techniques and tactics of Cezanne for portraits, she makes an effective work, but one without novelty of style, rather only of application. Cezanne has offered the means to treat a portrait of her husband O. Raymond Drey. And touched up with a little Gauguin and some Fauvre brushwork, the meld is charming, appealing. Her work is neither spectacular nor novel, but derivative; not Rice pure, but Rice adjusting influence.

Excluding the pleasure her work gives, still gives, the exhibition offers a vivid example of the reality and limits of influence, what makes work novel, and what makes work derivative, and offers examples that derivative does not lack appeal.

Some of the paintings, as advertised, deploy the discoveries and means of expressive fauvism she can do Dufy as well as Dufy, but we thus get a Rice-Dufy not a Rice variation. What the French did for Rice was more than Rice has done for the French. What she has done, immersed in the trends of the times, was to produce over a decade really nice work, well-made, charming, appealing and good but derivative. The derivation was not a visible difference, the use of style to move a bit down a road, a by-path, to make something slightly new, but rather to produce a crafted and effective image. She did not stand on the shoulders of giants, but used their form for her purpose to make paintings of boats or mountains or people, paintings that pleased, paintings that still please.

The greatest variation is the mix of more than one influence. The problems of influence are always enormous one can be influenced, but not use the impact on the picture plane. Many were influenced by Pollock's risks, Pollock's example, but did not dribble, and instead stole from deKooning whose surfaces influenced a generation.

In the case of Anne Estelle Rice she took the signature styles of her times, the ways of painting a painting, and used them over and over to great effect. Then, in 1910 or in 1914, when the work was modern, it might have appeared an American variant of the Fauves or Cezanne carried into a new century; but now with the past past, and most all of a century gone, it is no longer new and the variation no longer apparent. These works are schooled by the times, indicate for the historian the power of the new schools and new directions, the power of the first Fauves. Most of all the selection shows that beautiful paintings despite, not because of, the influences of the originators are still possible. Many of these are just that, well-made, luscious, beautiful paintings, never really new, and yet now new to us. What is new is not just the work, but the vitality of influence that empowers a new generation to spend capital they did not save.

Art, the Fauves or Cezanne, is capital in place and Anne Estelle Rice took from that endless store and spent wisely and well. She did not add to the sum total of art capital, none will be influenced by Rice, but this is not required or often possible. She used the past, the Fauves, the French, to make splendid works that charm us yet. Not great work, few can do that, not novel work, few can do that well, but work well worth seeing, rich and enchanting, work that beguiles us yet, and adorns the walls at Hollis Taggart to advantage.

Copyright ©1997 J. Bowyer Bell & REVIEW All Rights Reserved