That’s cool as in icy and detached. Not just fashionable and filled with style. This is work, precisionist is the term used, that imposes an order and removes the people from the swirling chaos of early to mid twentieth century American cities. Through photography, painting and film, these artist focused on the shapes, structures and patterns of buildings and technology but, in the work on display here at least, had no need to show the people whose lives these new constructions controlled. Only Hopper, revealed at the end of this show, sees fit to include people: lone figures without motivation or connection ill at ease in a world not made for their comfort.
The earliest street photograph is filled with detail but lacking people. The long exposure means the buildings are incredibly detailed but nobody, save for one shoe polisher, is in the same place long enough to be captured. That clarity can be seen as a direct forerunner of this period. Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham are here as representatives of the f/64 group. Cunningham’s 1934 photograph Faegol Ventilators shows the move from studies of nature to putting that same, unmoderated, deep eye on industry. The chimneys stand proud in rows. Their simplicity echoed later by Ralston Crawford’s Buffalo Grain Elevators from 1937. The flattening vision of the painter has the same love of shape as that shown by the photographer.
The subtitle of the show is O’Keeffe to Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe even in three works is impressive in the diversity on display: Black Abstraction, Ranchos Church and East River from the Shelton Hotel. The former is notable for its precise use of form, shape and shadow; the latter is a remarkable compressed panorama in which New York’s industry is remodelled as squares and other geometric shapes from which puffs of smoke emerge. At first, I didn’t think Ranchos Church quite belonged in this exhibition but just because its different to most everything else doesn’t make it misplaced. What we have is a New Mexico desert church reduced to crooked blocks that rise up from, and are one with, the sand and the dust.
There are several other striking images. Gordon Coster’s dark grey photograph of a train curving into Pittsburgh, its steam mixing with the haze caused by the industry as stark pylons and chimneys mark its route is noteworthy. As are the paintings of George Ault, a new name to me. Utterly unpeopled they use light and shape to create a sense of an alien, unknown world: New York Night with its empty street and lights lost in the fog being the prime example. The work of Charles Sheeler covering drawing, painting and photography, perhaps draws the themes of the exhibition together more clearly than any other artist.
These things are never cheap. A gift aid ticket for America’s Cool Modernism will set you back £13.50 and the catalogue, which is very good, is £25. Plus whatever it costs to get you to Oxford. Let me just say that if you are able to cover all that then you definitely should. This is an exhibition that links thoughts, ideas, works and artists together in informed and informative ways and which does so through quality selections. It is, palpably, cool.