ON VIEW: ‘Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950’ in the spotlight at Philadelphia Museum of Art

The experience of shopping underwent changes in the first half of the 20th century, as evidenced in this oil painting, “Spring Sale at Bendel’s” by Florine Stettheimer.
The experience of shopping underwent changes in the first half of the 20th century, as evidenced in this oil painting, “Spring Sale at Bendel’s” by Florine Stettheimer. SUBMITTED PHOTO
“Something on the Eight Ball,” an oil painting by Stuart Davis.
“Something on the Eight Ball,” an oil painting by Stuart Davis. SUBMITTED PHOTO


What: “Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950.”

When: Through Sept. 3.

Where: The Dorrance Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, till 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays (open Memorial Day Monday).

Admission: $20, $18 for seniors 65+, $14 for students and youths 13-18, free for children 12 and under and members. Pay-what-you-wish-admission the first Sunday of the month and Wednesdays after 5 p.m.

Info.: (215) 763-8100, www.philamuseum.org, @philamuseum on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube.

Sure, life comes at you fast these days. But a hundred years ago, things were also technologically and socially transforming at a remarkable pace.

Take, for example, the bathing “costumes” of the 1920s vs. all the exposed flesh in the wild scene depicted in Reginald Marsh’s 1932 painting “Coney Island Beach.”

And get a load of how much New York changed in 20 years in two snapshot paintings by the same artist: John Sloan’s “Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York City” and “The White Way.” Between 1907 and 1926 the city got streetcar trolleys, a glowing illuminated skyline, rising skyscrapers and rising skirt hemlines.

That’s just a sample of the excitement in the new Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition “Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950.” Almost all 156 works — featuring such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, George Bellows, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Dox Thrash, Man Ray, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and John Marin — are from the Art Museum’s permanent collection. A notable chunk of what’s in “Modern Times” came from a gift the museum received in the 1940s from the Stieglitz Collection. In addition to paintings, there are prints, drawings, photographs, decorative arts, textiles and sculpture.


Historically, “Modern Times” spans the World Wars, the advent of the automobile, the emergence of jazz and movies, the Great Depression, and Prohibition and its repeal. The growth and development of cities as we know them today happened during this time as well, and the American modernists captured the shifting look and feel of urban life. Curator Jessica Todd Smith described it as an era of “beautiful chaos” and pointed out “Man With Drill” by Charles Turzak, a woodcut depicting the use of a pneumatic drill at a construction site. Smith described how Turzak was tormented by the racket and vibrations of construction. “Can you imagine an artist trying to make a wood carving ... and have your studio shaken by a jackhammer?,” she said, adding hard vibrato to her voice.

One section of the exhibit, “Urban Geometry,” is dedicated to the modernists’ fascination with the towering tiered angles of clusters of skyscrapers.

Celebrating change, the modernists challenged conservative art conventions and sought to create a new visual language to reflect the innovation of the times they lived in. “Realism only gets you so far,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said.

According to Smith, O’Keeffe’s close-up still life, “Two Calla Lilies on Pink,” was controversial when it was first shown in 1928 because some found her choice to zero in on specific floral anatomy as a statement about human sexuality.

Smith acknowledged that some may criticize her for including a French-born artist like Duchamp, or an Armenian-born artist like Arshile Gorky, in an exhibit about American art. However, she said, what’s important is that they became U.S. citizens. “Modern Times” has 23 different artists that were born outside the U.S., challenging visitors to think hard about what it means to be American.

Smith also made a point of incorporating Pennsylvania and Philly flavor throughout “Modern Times.” Ben Shahn’s 1946 gouache and ink piece “Nearly Everyone Reads The Bulletin” pokes fun at the then-current advertising slogan of a former Philadelphia evening newspaper. African-American artist Horace Pippin, who has three works in the show, was from West Chester. When the PSFS building (now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel) was constructed in 1932, it was regarded as a trailblazing example of “International Style” architecture. There’s a photo of the building’s windowless rear office tower, plus a red imitation-leather-and-chrome lounge chair, and companion ottoman, from the PSFS building. Featured artists Arthur Beecher Carles, Henry Breckenridge and Henry McCarter all lived and worked in Philadelphia. Man Ray and Alexander Calder were born in Philadelphia.

Due to the renovations and expansion that are going on through 2020 at the museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is taking the opportunity to highlight the holdings in its collection. Timothy Rub, the museum’s George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, shared that a “Face to Face: Portraits of Artists” exhibit scheduled to open in June will be another display of items from the permanent collection.

The Art Museum feels the impact of the American modernists can still be felt today, and has planned a series of related special events throughout the show’s run through Sept. 3.