Modern Dreams Art of America


Modern Dreams

Andrew Graham-Dixon discovers how the ambitions of visionary artists and architects helped America remove itself from the shadow of Europe in the 20th century.


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This is the most famous statue in the world.

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The Statue Of Liberty

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embodies the old American dream of freedom, free opportunity for all.

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But look beneath the surface

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and she's also a great symbol of modern America's economic and technological power.

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Liberty isn't quite what she seems to be.

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She's an American symbol, but she was in fact, a gift from the French.

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And while she might look like a classical statue, she isn't made of marble,

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she is formed from a copper skin stretched across an intricate network of iron girders,

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the very same cutting-edge technology

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that would soon transform the skylines of America's great modern cities.

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She is, herself, a skyscraper.

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From the moment that she was installed here in 1886,

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the Statue Of Liberty beckoned immigrants to America,

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they came in their millions.

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At the beginning of the 19th century, the population of the United States

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was less than four million.

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By 1920, it was more than 100 million.

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It was a transformation that redefined the American identity

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and which signalled the beginning of the modern age.

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SIRENS WAIL

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To be a new arrival in New York at the beginning of the 20th century

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was a bewildering experience.

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The constant influx of immigrants made for an extraordinary mix of nationalities.

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And simply by their presence, they made this the most dynamic city,

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in the most dynamic nation in the world.

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But it was also a place of slums, gang wars,

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exploitation and disease.

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Yet to a small group of young artists, it was precisely that contrast

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that seemed to encapsulate modern America.

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They abandoned their home city of Philadelphia and came to New York,

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not just to live, but to make the city the subject of their art.

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They wanted to depict the buzz and grit of Manhattan,

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the trashy sprawl of this ever expanding, over populated city

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and they became known as "The Ashcan School".

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The painters of The Ashcan School were fascinated

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by focal points, by meeting places

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and there aren't many of their places left in New York City today,

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but McSorely's Old Ale House is one of those places.

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John Sloan, who was one of the principal painters of the school,

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came here many times.

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I think what he was fascinated by in this place was the way in which ordinary life

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would, so to speak, arrange itself in a succession of different compositions

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before his artist's eye.

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He borrowed the swift, sketchy French Impressionist style of Manet and Degas,

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the pictorial equivalent of snatched glimpses and glances,

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and used it to capture the unique energy of American life.

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For all his passionate engagement with the fabric of the city,

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John Sloan tended towards sentimentality in his slices of life.

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He turned a blind eye to the poverty

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and the ruthlessly competitive ethos of Manhattan.

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He saw the people of New York as a vast extended family.

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And he depicted the city and its multitudes

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as if it was a non-stop street party.

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The art of Sloan's contemporary, George Bellows, however, was savagely critical.

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To him, New York was a city where people had literally to fight to survive.

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He made that his subject in a series of pictures

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that reflect the darker side of life in this new world.

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George Bellows was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed

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by what he saw as the maelstrom of New York city.

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The society where it really was dog eat dog, those who got on, got on,

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and those who didn't quickly fell into the gutter.

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And his great image of the cruelty of New York as a society and as a place

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was the illegal boxing match.

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These fights would take place in gentlemen's clubs,

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hence the grim irony of his title, Both Members Of This Club.

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These are desperate men fighting for the entertainment of others.

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Certainly far too poor to be members of any club but,

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in order to be able to fight, they are briefly made members of the establishment.

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It's a horrible image of human desperation.

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The black man appears not just to be punching his opponent, but kneeing him in the groin

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and he gives out this terrible yell.

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That mouth is like a raw wound.

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There is an extraordinary fleshiness about the way in which

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Bellows has painted the whole picture.

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Look at this sea of faces, this is the audience.

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A Goya-esque audience, but it also seems to look forward to

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Francis Bacon's depiction of man as meat, man as a blur of flesh.

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It's a really brutal image of what Bellows saw as a brutal, brutalised society.

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The contrast between the bruising images of George Bellows

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and the softer visions of John Sloan,

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anticipates the great conflict that American artists

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would find themselves caught up in during the first half of the 20th century.

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How do you respond to a new urban reality?

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The world changing at breathtaking speed?

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Do you idealise it, seek to see the best in it,

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or do you strip it bare?

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Here, Bellows shows the city itself being torn apart

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in the construction of a new railroad terminus for New York.

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These were the places where most people in America would live,

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in the belly of an immense machine, the city.

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That would provide enormous wealth for some, but not for all.

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And this new city machine had an emblem

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that symbolised the social chasm that was coming to America.

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And it first appeared in Chicago.

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A terrible fire in the city in 1871 had cleared the way for architects

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to begin experimenting with a new form of construction,

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that would allow them to make buildings taller than ever before.

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These lofty brownstone buildings are some of the world's first skyscrapers.

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The main conceiver of the skyscraper, architect Louis Sullivan,

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lived and worked in Chicago.

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This is his Auditorium building, completed in 1889.

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Sullivan coined the phrase, "Form follows function",

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meaning that the new social and economic structures of America required a new architecture.

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But his manifesto on the design of tall buildings has endured as a blueprint

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for almost every skyscraper built in the last 120 years.

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"Let us state the conditions", wrote Sullivan, in the plainest manner.

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"First, a storey below ground containing the plant for power, heating, lighting.

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"A ground floor devoted to stores, banks or other establishments.

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"A second storey, readily accessible by stairways.

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"Above this, an indefinite number of storeys of offices, piled tier upon tier.

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"Last, at the top of this pile, is placed a storey that is

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"purely physiological in its nature. Namely, the attic".

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Sullivan described the skyscraper as the perfect emblem

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of the proud, upwardly aspiring spirit of American man.

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He might, more accurately, have said businessman.

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By 1920 there were over 300,000 corporations in the United States

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serving 100 million consumers in a vast, interconnected single market.

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The mightiest economy the world had ever seen.

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This is what the land of opportunity looks like.

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The opportunity to make a fortune in a free market.

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Skyscrapers stood, above all, for American corporate success.

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They transformed the appearance of American cities,

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cities the like of which had never been seen before.

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Skylines became like graphs, the tallest buildings representing

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the greatest concentration of commercial wealth and power.

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Travel away from the gleaming,

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bright, beautiful, skyscraping downtown

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of a city like Chicago in the early 20th century

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and you would encounter another city, a completely different place.

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Far more horizontal, lower in look, lower in spirit.

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The experience was described in a vivid, bleak, depressing passage in Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel,

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The Jungle, where he talks of journeying south out of Chicago

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and travelling for 34 miles along the same one road and seeing nothing but ugliness.

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The reason the sprawl of the slums could continue for mile after mile after mile

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in a place like Chicago was simply because the American landscape is so enormous.

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It could just eat it up.

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Although the scenery's changed, I think Sinclair was being depressingly prescient.

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What he was describing was the formation of the modern American cityscape.

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While the details have changed, the contrast between rich and poor,

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between beauty and ugliness, are still exactly the same.

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Chicago epitomised a new reality.

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The task ahead for American artists, as it had been for The Ashcan School,

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was how to respond to this world of extremes.

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By 1913, as American artists began to face up to that challenge,

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a headline event in New York offered them one possible solution.

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I'm on Lexington Avenue, between 25th and 26th Street.

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What's really a landmark in the development of modern American culture

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because it was here in 1913

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that they staged the first international exhibition of modern art.

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A show that included some 1,250 paintings and sculptures

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by around 300 American and European artists.

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Above all, this was the American public's first opportunity

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to experience the incendiary series of revolutions that had swept through European art,

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from Fauvism to the work of Picasso and the Cubists.

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And it was staged here at the appropriately incendiary venue

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of the Armory of the 69th Regiment of the US Army.

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The show certainly had an explosive impact,

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but not in the way its organisers had hoped for.

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The show got plenty of press coverage and thousands of visitors

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but, by and large, people came not to look and be enlightened,

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they came to gawp and to mock.

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A painting like Nude In Motion by the founder of The Ashcan School, Robert Henri,

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might have been deemed acceptable.

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But Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase,

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actually painted a year earlier, was incomprehensible to most Americans.

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Other modern European artists, such as Matisse and Picasso, were also pilloried.

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But Duchamp's painting drew the most criticism and became the butt of most of the jokes.

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In all, around 300,000 people saw the Armory show in 1913

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but, as an exercise in introducing the American public

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to European contemporary art, it was a disaster.

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So why did the Armory show meet with such an overwhelmingly hostile response?

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Well, I think part of the answer lies purely in all-American patriotism,

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large swathes of the press and the public deeply resented the idea

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that these newfangled Europeans with their newfangled ideas represented

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some kind of cutting edge with which they were not familiar.

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But it's also important to remember that a lot of American artists

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and their students had problems with the work in the Armory show.

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The truth is that even the most forward looking American artists of the early 20th century

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still remained essentially wedded to representational languages of painting.

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Even those who were drawn to the experimental and the avant-garde

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ultimately embraced a form of realism.

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This is Voice Of The City Of New York Interpreted

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painted by Joseph Stella in the early 1920s.

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Stella was an Italian immigrant who was passionately excited

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by the forms and shapes of the teeming American metropolis.

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In places, this picture must've seen bewilderingly modern to the American audience.

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Especially in the almost abstract passages meant to conjure up the lights of Broadway.

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Overall, he's framed his hectic celebration of the city in a sharp-lined, figurative style.

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Even the overall form of his work is traditional.

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It's a five panelled altarpiece, erected to the steel and glass gods of the city.

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The painter and photographer Charles Sheeler saw the same subject matter

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and conveyed the same excitement

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in the literal and representational language of moving pictures,

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themselves generated by a machine.

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Sheeler made Manhatta in 1921 with filmmaker Paul Strand.

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It's a powerful evocation of the drama and intensity of America's most dynamic city.

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Sheeler was struck by the idea that the new buildings and machines

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formed by big business and heavy industry

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were the most distinctive feature of American life.

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And in his work as a painter he chose an hauntingly cold, clinical, figurative style.

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In American Landscape, from 1930, a huge factory dominates the scene.

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There's an impersonal geometry,

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an unreal, unsullied look to everything.

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Especially the factory chimney and the wharfside train.

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Sheeler's painting was inspired by an earlier trip he'd made to Detroit

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which proved to be a turning point in his career.

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This steelworks was once part of the Ford River Rouge plant.

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Charles Sheeler arrived here in 1927 with a commission from Ford

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to produce a series of photographs

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and he was suitably impressed by what he saw.

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The subject matter, he said,

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"Is incomparably the most thrilling I have had to work with."

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And these are his photographs.

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At the time the River Rouge plant

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was the largest most technologically advanced industrial complex in the world.

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Raw materials like iron ore were processed and assembled in a continuous workflow

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on one enormous site to produce finished automobiles.

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It was called vertical integration.

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Sheeler photographed it all as if it were the modern equivalent of a Gothic cathedral.

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Towering structures reaching to the heavens.

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But he also saw it as a distinctly unwelcoming cathedral,

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hard, unyielding.

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That's why there is such an unsettling quality to so much of Sheeler's work.

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I think it's very telling that the one thing you almost never find

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in Charles Sheeler's images of the Ford River Rouge plant is any trace of human presence.

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It's as if he recognised that the vast edifice of big business in America,

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despite its cathedral-like magnificence,

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rested on an essentially cold and calculatedly impersonal view

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of the individual human worker.

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In America in the early 20th century people were chasing money as never before,

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streamlining production to maximise profits,

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and Detroit was one of the capital cities of this capitalist creed.

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The factory production line was a process that Henry Ford had personally pioneered.

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Human beings became biological machines,

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endlessly repeating the same mechanical actions.

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This endless vista of human labour underpinned the soaring structures of the factory,

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its chimneys and its plant.

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It's like the contrast between skyscraper

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and urban sprawl laid out at the level of industry and labour relations.

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Today, workers are assisted by computer-controlled machines.

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The business philosophy remains the same.

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Henry Ford's perfection of the production line process marks

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the apotheosis of America's old puritan work ethic.

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This is work purged of every last ounce of inefficiency,

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work rendered totally, purely,

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transparently, utterly productive.

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I think it's also the triumph of a certain type of utilitarian American attitude

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that's so profoundly embedded.

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You find it in the language,

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you find it in all kinds of unexpected places in modern America.

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You can go into a restaurant and, if haven't finished your meal,

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the waitress will say to you, "Hey, are you still working on that?"

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Everything in America, at a certain level, is work.

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But what happens when there is no work to be done?

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What happens when the apparently virtuous circle of mass production and mass consumption,

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the engine of American progress, is suddenly broken?

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The stock market crash of 1929 set the world economy on a downward spiral.

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Factories began to close and unemployment soared.

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Against the backdrop of what became the Great Depression,

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Americans began to look back to the values

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and familiar certainties of earlier times.

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And that's what you see in this celebrated painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic.

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Grant Wood submitted American Gothic to the juried annual

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Open Art Exhibition Of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1930

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and he won the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal and 300 for it.

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Yet the picture has become, since that time,

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one of the most famous images in all of American art history.

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Wood painted it, I think, out of a deep sense of nostalgia.

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He was harking back to his own childhood in Iowa

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where he grew up among frontiersmen and women just like this.

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When the picture was reproduced in a local newspaper

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back in 1930, with the caption Iowa Farmer And His Wife,

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a real Iowa farmer's wife wrote in to the newspaper and said,

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"That's disgraceful, you're going to give people like us a bad name.

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"The picture should be hung in a cheese factory, that woman's face would positively sour milk."

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But I think the essence of it, for me,

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is it's got a kind of specimen-like quality to it.

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It's as if these are, if you like, the last representatives of old Victorian values in America

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and they represent, in a sense they are the homesteader equivalent of the last of the Mohicans.

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One feels that these people are on the way out,

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they are being squeezed out by the new urbanisation of America

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that is gradually depopulating the countryside

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and they are also being squeezed by the economic conditions of the Great Depression,

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which they can't control in anyway.

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Grant Wood's painting is a lament for the passing of a 19th-century ideal,

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decent people, living in small communities.

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But the dream of such a life continued to exert a powerful hold on the American imagination,

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and especially so in the darkest days of the depression

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when many Americans clung on to it, like a fantasy of escape from hardship.

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It's the dream of a wonderful life in a perfect world,

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a world not unlike this one, a small town somewhere in America.

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This is Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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It might seem almost too perfect

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but it represents an idealised America, based not on chasing the dollar

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but on goodness, decency, shared troubles and human dignity.

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And, it had its own painter, a man called Norman Rockwell.

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For more than 40 years, Rockwell's pictures were almost a weekly feature

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of life in the United States.

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Delivered to the doorsteps of the millions of families

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who read magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.

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It's a benevolent, comforting myth of America as a place where people always help each other,

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where the sick are cared for and there's always someone looking out for you.

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It's a tonic for the white middle-class,

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the vision of a world where family always gets together at Thanksgiving

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and there's always a 20 lb turkey on the table.

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The Rockwell Museum draws huge numbers of patriotic American visitors.

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People who are nostalgic for that old dream of their nation

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and find it reflected back at them in these meticulously painted single frame stories.

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Stephanie Plunkett is the museum's curator.

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Stockbridge doesn't seem to have changed a great deal.

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Stockbridge is very much the same, that's really part of its charm.

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I think of Rockwell, in a sense, as an artist who paints a kind of ideal America.

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I think he once said,

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"My subject is America as I would like it to be rather than as it is."

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What do you think the values that he tried to capture,

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what are those values?

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I think Rockwell saw the best in us.

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His art is absolutely aspirational and he was really showing an America

0:28:330:28:37

that I think represented the best possible human qualities.

0:28:370:28:42

Ideas about kindness and care and community.

0:28:430:28:48

It didn't have to be a big event to be important, it could be a small moment in life

0:28:480:28:51

and in fact he said, "I was painting the America I knew and observed

0:28:510:28:54

"for others who might not have noticed."

0:28:540:28:57

I have the sense that there are certain groups

0:28:590:29:03

that are not included in the Rockwell idyll.

0:29:030:29:06

They simply don't figure.

0:29:060:29:08

I imagine that Thanksgiving dinner, that table could go on forever this way.

0:29:080:29:12

-Yes.

-But would a black face ever appear at that table?

0:29:120:29:17

Isn't that something slightly troubling

0:29:170:29:19

about the exclusiveness of Rockwell's small town paradise?

0:29:190:29:24

Rockwell felt very strongly about human rights,

0:29:240:29:29

human dignity for all and equality.

0:29:290:29:31

He would've loved to introduce those figures

0:29:310:29:34

and, in fact, the publications of the era really did not allow that.

0:29:340:29:39

The Post generally had an unwritten rule that said that if people of colour were portrayed

0:29:390:29:44

they would be portrayed in service positions.

0:29:440:29:46

So this is really, in a sense,

0:29:460:29:48

his own sensibilities slightly being forced into that box?

0:29:480:29:53

Yes, as beautiful as his paintings are, they were created for mass publication

0:29:530:29:57

and the publications each had their own structures

0:29:570:30:01

that guided what they would show.

0:30:010:30:04

So there's more going on under the surface of these images than you might at first imagined.

0:30:090:30:15

Look closely and you really can glimpse

0:30:170:30:20

some of the cracks in the American dream.

0:30:200:30:22

Even though Rockwell does his best to conceal them.

0:30:250:30:28

But in the paintings of Rockwell's contemporary, Edward Hopper,

0:30:360:30:41

those unsettling undercurrents are brought to the surface.

0:30:410:30:45

What's wrong with America, was what his art was all about.

0:30:450:30:50

Hopper's scenes are like glimpses, almost voyeuristic moments,

0:30:500:30:53

that seem to capture the inner turmoil of lonely individuals.

0:30:530:30:57

The angst in the soul of modern America.

0:30:590:31:02

Hopper's world is not dynamic or dangerous.

0:31:060:31:09

In its way it's as soulless as a Sheeler factory.

0:31:090:31:13

Only this time we really can see the people and share their feelings,

0:31:130:31:19

or at least think we do.

0:31:190:31:21

If there's a contemporary equivalent to the art of Hopper,

0:31:300:31:33

it must be the work of another New York artist, Philip-Lorca Dicorcia,

0:31:330:31:38

whose photographs are shot through

0:31:380:31:41

with that same sense of ambiguity and introspection.

0:31:410:31:45

So, Philip-Lorca, what is it that draws your eye to Hopper,

0:31:470:31:51

what do you value in his work?

0:31:510:31:53

I value the contradictions, really.

0:31:570:32:00

I think complexity often results from contradiction and

0:32:000:32:05

he does create a lot of tension between what is there and what is not there.

0:32:050:32:10

I find the images that I like the most

0:32:120:32:15

do kind of have a narrative to them,

0:32:150:32:19

a tension between reality and fiction.

0:32:190:32:23

Can you give me an example of that?

0:32:230:32:26

Well, I think the one that's strangely the most casual,

0:32:260:32:29

though it's the most elaborate, is the movie theatre, The Usherette.

0:32:290:32:35

You're looking at a movie, an audience watching the movie

0:32:370:32:42

and then, in a place in the image where the usherette cannot see the audience

0:32:420:32:47

and the audience cannot see her, she's in her own bubble.

0:32:470:32:53

I think that's a very complicated picture, in terms of its psychology,

0:32:560:33:01

because you can kind of empathise with her on a level that is very difficult to do, I think,

0:33:010:33:09

because with narrative pictures

0:33:090:33:12

you see the conclusion, always, to things

0:33:120:33:16

and he never concludes anything.

0:33:160:33:19

He is a master of what I call the elliptical narrative.

0:33:190:33:24

There's an element always missing.

0:33:240:33:26

When I think about your own work in relation to Hopper,

0:33:260:33:28

I always think of that wonderful series you did called Heads

0:33:280:33:31

which seems to me in there sort of catching of people

0:33:310:33:35

in their own lonely bubble in the city.

0:33:350:33:37

Almost like a photographic re-enactment of a kind of Hopper voyeurism.

0:33:390:33:44

Well, I think that people in groups can be seemingly isolated.

0:33:440:33:51

It really remains a mystery what they're thinking about.

0:33:510:33:54

When people don't look directly at the camera,

0:33:540:34:00

or at the nominal viewer in a painting, it's always seen as inward.

0:34:000:34:04

It is a bit of a cliche, I guess,

0:34:040:34:07

but it's also one of the reasons why his work

0:34:070:34:10

and my work is described as cinematic at times.

0:34:100:34:13

Hopper's most cinematic painting, and his most famous,

0:34:240:34:27

is Nighthawks painted in 1942.

0:34:270:34:31

It's an apparently simple scene,

0:34:330:34:35

four figures in a New York diner at night.

0:34:350:34:39

But, as a viewer, you are instantly gripped by the possibilities of what might be going on here

0:34:390:34:45

and that, as always with Hopper, is far from straightforward.

0:34:450:34:49

Hopper's pictures evoke aftermaths or preludes,

0:34:520:34:57

moments when things have just happened or are just about to happen

0:34:570:35:01

in lives that he deliberately leaves inscrutable.

0:35:010:35:05

What I think is most distinctive about his vision of America

0:35:050:35:11

is this pervasive feeling of emptiness, of transitoriness of rootlessness.

0:35:110:35:18

I think what Hopper absolutely nails about a certain aspect

0:35:190:35:23

of the modern American experience is

0:35:230:35:28

that sense of a place where people

0:35:280:35:32

who are perhaps travelling from different places in this vast continent,

0:35:320:35:36

perhaps travelling salesman, hookers,

0:35:360:35:39

someone from out of town, they suddenly come together in a diner.

0:35:390:35:46

I love the way that Hopper's painted this diner almost as if it were an aquarium.

0:35:460:35:50

I think that's exactly what he captures,

0:35:500:35:53

he captures this oceanic emptiness of modern American existence.

0:35:530:35:59

And Hopper said that he was the great figurative artist holding abstraction,

0:36:000:36:03

holding modernism in all its forms at bay.

0:36:030:36:07

I actually think his own language of expressing modern alienation,

0:36:070:36:11

if you like, is full of touches of abstraction and modernism.

0:36:110:36:15

Look at the way in which he's melted the walls

0:36:150:36:19

behind the seated figures into this bruised, blue, empty void.

0:36:190:36:25

Look at the way he's painted that stripe of a window frame

0:36:250:36:30

and isolated it against that yellow expanse.

0:36:300:36:34

The picture is full of little touches of abstraction.

0:36:370:36:42

Little plays of light and shade that, to me, suggest

0:36:420:36:45

that Hopper isn't nearly as far away

0:36:450:36:49

from the first great generation of American abstract painters as he claimed to be.

0:36:490:36:54

So who would at last defy the deep-seated American preference for realism and representation in art?

0:36:580:37:05

Who would tease abstraction out of the back ground of American painting

0:37:060:37:10

and put it centre stage?

0:37:100:37:12

The answer is a man called Arshile Gorky.

0:37:120:37:16

Two of his most influential paintings hang here

0:37:160:37:19

in the slightly unlikely milieu of the Newark Museum's cafe and restaurant.

0:37:190:37:26

The paintings were only rediscovered in the 1970s

0:37:260:37:29

after spending more than 30 years under layers of whitewash.

0:37:290:37:32

Arshile Gorky was an Armenian immigrant

0:37:380:37:42

with a passion for modern European art

0:37:420:37:46

and he just couldn't understand why America, this exciting, new, modern country,

0:37:460:37:52

had failed to embrace the true language, as he saw it, of modern art.

0:37:520:37:56

So he, in this picture, one of the two long forgotten

0:37:560:38:00

murals that he painted for the Newark Airport Authorities,

0:38:000:38:03

he is almost singlehandedly trying to introduce Americans,

0:38:030:38:07

everyday Americans, to the exciting language of European avant-garde art.

0:38:070:38:14

The picture's like a kaleidoscope in which Gorky has whirled round

0:38:140:38:20

the different aspects of avant-garde European style.

0:38:200:38:23

There are traces of surrealism, of Cubism's flattened space,

0:38:230:38:27

of Fernand Leger's machine age aesthetic.

0:38:270:38:30

This is a painting in one sense that takes you inside the cockpit of the American aeroplane.

0:38:300:38:35

So, he's given us the deceptive forms of aeronautical instruments.

0:38:360:38:41

On the other hand, if you look at those instruments, they also actually form

0:38:430:38:46

the upside down body of a female traveller by plane.

0:38:460:38:51

There she is, there's her head, with a rather fashionable boater hat on,

0:38:510:38:54

and there's her high heeled shoe.

0:38:540:38:57

There were originally ten of these grand murals painted for Newark airport

0:39:000:39:04

but only two have survived.

0:39:040:39:06

The other one's just over there and it shows a kind of diagrammatic map of America

0:39:060:39:11

as a continent crisscrossed with flight paths.

0:39:110:39:13

I think a kind of emblem of Gorky's sense of America as an exciting place,

0:39:130:39:18

or a place where you could literally take wing.

0:39:180:39:22

What Gorky was saying to Americans with these pictures,

0:39:230:39:26

he was asking them a piercing question, he was saying,

0:39:260:39:28

well, you live in this land of opportunity, this land of excitement,

0:39:280:39:32

this land of technology,

0:39:320:39:33

this land where so much seems to be flying off into the future,

0:39:330:39:36

how come your art, up until now,

0:39:360:39:38

has remained so mired in the past?

0:39:380:39:41

Tied to the old languages of representational, figurative art.

0:39:410:39:45

Why are all your artists, people like Hopper or Rockwell,

0:39:450:39:49

why not explore the languages of the avant-garde, of Picasso, of the modern?

0:39:490:39:54

Why not take that language and make it your own?

0:39:550:39:58

In fact, Gorky would spend the rest of his career saying that message to Americans,

0:39:580:40:02

to American artists, saying it again and again and again

0:40:020:40:07

until it got through.

0:40:070:40:09

Gorky was a considerable artist in his own right,

0:40:130:40:16

though perhaps not a genius, but he was the catalyst for a seismic shift in American art

0:40:160:40:22

and his followers would create one of the most exciting movements in all of 20th-century painting.

0:40:220:40:28

Now meet the Abstract Expressionists.

0:40:330:40:35

These were the people who responded to Gorky's challenge

0:40:350:40:39

and set out to create a genuinely new and modern art for a new modern society.

0:40:390:40:44

The one point of difference between them and Gorky,

0:40:490:40:53

who loved modern America, was that they hated it.

0:40:530:40:57

Barnett Newman was one of the high priests of the movement.

0:40:570:41:01

His signature the flickering zip of paint, penetrating a void

0:41:010:41:06

which he saw as a vibrant assertion of human free will against the dead machine.

0:41:060:41:12

"If my work were properly understood,"

0:41:120:41:14

he proclaimed, "it would mean the end of state capitalism."

0:41:140:41:19

Franz Kline said,

0:41:200:41:22

"I paint not the things I see but the feelings they arouse in me."

0:41:220:41:27

And Clyfford Still said that, "A limited mass of paint on a canvas

0:41:270:41:31

"is nobler than an acre of decorations in a rich man's mansion."

0:41:310:41:36

Their art was, in effect, a resounding no to America's materialism,

0:41:360:41:41

consumerism, obsession with money and things.

0:41:410:41:45

That's why they turned away from things altogether,

0:41:450:41:48

from the figurative to the abstract.

0:41:480:41:51

And no-one pulverised the world of physical appearances

0:41:540:41:57

more thoroughly than Jackson Pollock,

0:41:570:42:00

the first American abstract painter to achieve international fame.

0:42:000:42:06

This unique footage of Jackson Pollock making one of his drip paintings

0:42:130:42:19

was shot by Hans Namuth in 1951

0:42:190:42:21

when Pollock was at the peak of his success.

0:42:210:42:25

The technique which Pollock made his own

0:42:250:42:27

was an attempt to express the true nature of existence

0:42:270:42:30

by turning art into a record of the artist's gestures.

0:42:300:42:35

It also fixed Pollock in the public imagination as Jack The Dripper.

0:42:370:42:42

'When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about.

0:42:430:42:48

'I can control the flow of the paint,

0:42:500:42:53

'there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.

0:42:530:42:58

'Sometimes I lose the painting

0:43:000:43:03

'but I have no fear of changes,

0:43:030:43:07

'of destroying the image because a painting has a life of its own

0:43:070:43:09

'I try to let it live.'

0:43:090:43:12

Remarkably enough, you can still visit the studio where Pollock

0:43:170:43:22

broke through to his signature style of hectic drips, splashes and spatter.

0:43:220:43:26

It is kind of extraordinary.

0:43:370:43:39

I was half joking about this being a shrine to St Jackson Pollock

0:43:390:43:43

but it really is and it's even got, it's even got a reliquary case on the end.

0:43:430:43:49

These are the sacred pots of paint

0:43:500:43:53

and the sacred brushes once wielded by Jackson Pollock.

0:43:530:43:58

I think what's immediately most striking,

0:43:580:44:02

I don't think I've ever quite seen a studio that is as revealing

0:44:020:44:06

of an artist's unique idiosyncratic practices as this one

0:44:060:44:12

because Pollock's great invention, or his great thing, was to paint on the floor.

0:44:120:44:17

Other artists had done it but not quite with the abandon that he did it.

0:44:170:44:22

He could work here on a scale like he could never work before.

0:44:220:44:25

This is where he painted his greatest pictures,

0:44:250:44:27

this is where he made his breakthrough to his monumental canvases

0:44:270:44:30

and what we see here are the aftermaths of his creation,

0:44:300:44:37

these are the spatters of paint that missed the canvas and ended up on the floor.

0:44:370:44:43

Harold Rosenberg, the critic, wrote that the action painter,

0:44:440:44:48

and he had Pollock in mind, is like a gladiator entering the arena of his studio

0:44:480:44:54

and if ever a studio felt like an arena, this is it.

0:44:540:44:58

What came out of these battles were enormous, imposing canvases

0:45:060:45:11

like this one, Autumn Rhythm, painted in 1950.

0:45:110:45:16

I think what this picture represents is an extraordinary X marks the spot moment.

0:45:180:45:23

This is the moment of America's appropriation of the modern language of art.

0:45:230:45:29

Pollock, in one fell swoop, has taken this whole revolution

0:45:290:45:33

that begins with Cezanne and Cubism and pushes on through to surrealism

0:45:330:45:38

and he's taken, he's taken the language of modernism,

0:45:380:45:41

he's taken that language and breaking with conventional representation.

0:45:410:45:45

He's brought it into a whole new field of calculated incoherence.

0:45:450:45:50

Somebody asked Pollock, "Why don't you paint appearances,

0:45:500:45:53

"why don't you paint objects?"

0:45:530:45:55

He said, "Well, we've got machines to represent objects.

0:45:550:45:59

"I want to get at a more modern essence of the nature of experience, the nature of reality.

0:45:590:46:04

"I want to depict what's inside a person."

0:46:040:46:08

So, when you look at this picture I suppose, in a sense,

0:46:080:46:12

Pollock wants you to think of the picture as the experience

0:46:120:46:16

of almost watching him pour himself out onto the canvas.

0:46:160:46:19

What he's trying to do throughout is actually eliminate

0:46:190:46:23

any suggestion of representational form.

0:46:230:46:27

So whenever his hand accidentally might almost make something that would look like a face,

0:46:270:46:32

or a hill, or a river, he would sabotage that

0:46:320:46:36

and make sure that nothing in the image looks like an image.

0:46:360:46:40

The question you have ask yourself is, what does it say, what does it mean?

0:46:430:46:48

After all it's painted on the scale of an altarpiece.

0:46:480:46:51

The scale of the picture suggests that you're going to be told something

0:46:510:46:54

very important, very powerful, very meaningful.

0:46:540:46:59

Yet when I look at it, when I try to distil it down to what it actually says about life,

0:46:590:47:04

it presents an image of man,

0:47:040:47:07

Pollock himself, as this inchoate, incoherent assembly of impulses

0:47:070:47:15

and energies and it depicts the universe in the same sense.

0:47:150:47:19

This is very much the universe as the blind watchmaker,

0:47:190:47:22

with no logic, no purpose, just sheer being, sheer existence

0:47:220:47:28

but without any logic to it, without any meaning to it.

0:47:280:47:31

It seems to me it's a pretty dark statement, it's a pretty nihilistic statement.

0:47:310:47:35

I don't really see where Pollock could have taken this.

0:47:350:47:40

Pollock himself had his doubts.

0:47:420:47:44

In fact he'd only paint in his most extreme drip style for a few short years

0:47:440:47:49

and those doubts were only enhanced by his growing fame.

0:47:490:47:53

When Life magazine showcased him and his work,

0:47:560:47:59

the experience of seeing his pictures reproduced in the glossiest shop window

0:47:590:48:04

for America's new consumer culture, alongside adverts for instant frozen dinners

0:48:040:48:11

and Ford's latest motor cars, made Pollock feel profoundly uneasy.

0:48:110:48:16

He'd sought to stand against the new market-driven world

0:48:180:48:21

but feared he was a sell-out.

0:48:210:48:23

The fear of selling out also played on the mind of Pollock's friend and contemporary Mark Rothko.

0:48:260:48:32

In 1958 he was offered a lucrative commission in Manhattan's most talked about new skyscraper,

0:48:350:48:40

Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building.

0:48:400:48:44

Specifically, The Four Seasons restaurant.

0:48:440:48:47

Over the course of a year, Rothko's initial excitement for the project

0:48:490:48:54

gradually gave way to growing scepticism.

0:48:540:48:58

The turning point is said to have come when he actually turned up here to eat a meal,

0:48:580:49:03

he came for lunch. And he looked around at his fellow diners

0:49:030:49:06

and saw that everyone in here was a banker, a businessman,

0:49:060:49:10

everyone in here represented lots and lots and lots of money.

0:49:100:49:15

And he's said to have remarked, "Do I really want my work to be

0:49:150:49:19

"the amusement of people who pay 50 a plate?"

0:49:190:49:23

That wasn't, in the end, what Rothko decided his work was all about.

0:49:240:49:29

He was determined to keep his art pure.

0:49:310:49:34

These are some of his pictures and pure seems the right word for them.

0:49:360:49:42

They are made of pure colour, laid in translucent layers and fields.

0:49:420:49:47

Oil paint with the shimmering fugitive qualities of watercolour.

0:49:470:49:51

But I think they are also full of that old American love

0:49:510:49:56

for the continent's vast sublime nature.

0:49:560:49:59

When I look at these paintings I see sunsets over a dark horizon,

0:49:590:50:02

I see seas and sky.

0:50:020:50:06

Once you've got Rothko on your mind you can find his spirit, or at

0:50:140:50:19

least find yourself seeing with his abstracting eyes, everywhere you go.

0:50:190:50:24

Even on an airport travelater,

0:50:250:50:28

in a departure lounge or looking through an aeroplane window.

0:50:280:50:32

Gazing at the heavens from 20,000 feet you might almost be travelling

0:50:320:50:37

through some vast three-dimensional version of a Rothko painting.

0:50:370:50:42

In fact, I'm on my way to the most ambitious of his works.

0:50:480:50:52

An entire secular chapel in Houston, Texas.

0:50:530:50:55

It was the culmination of his lifelong desire to see his pictures exhibited

0:51:010:51:05

in a series under controlled light conditions.

0:51:050:51:10

And this is the result, the Rothko Chapel.

0:51:120:51:15

The building's name suggests that what you're going to find when you come in here

0:51:490:51:54

is some kind of religious space,

0:51:540:51:56

but what kind of religious space, it's hard to say.

0:52:000:52:04

He's clearly got the form of the altarpiece in his mind.

0:52:040:52:11

There's one, two, three triptychs in here.

0:52:110:52:16

And there's this question of where should you look

0:52:160:52:20

because in a regular church or chapel there's a principal point of orientation,

0:52:200:52:25

you know, you'd look there at the main altarpiece and yes, 0K, here

0:52:250:52:29

that is the biggest picture but there's...

0:52:290:52:33

You do not have the sense that that is where you look for your enlightenment,

0:52:330:52:37

for your clarity, all the answers are going to be over there, no.

0:52:370:52:40

Here you've got this sense that maybe I should look there, or there,

0:52:400:52:45

there's another triptych there, there's one here.

0:52:450:52:48

So, where do you look? It's almost like a hall of mirrors.

0:52:480:52:53

And, 0K, the pictures don't reflect you back

0:52:530:52:57

but, in a sense, they do because they're quite resistant to the gaze,

0:52:570:53:03

they are not as misty,

0:53:030:53:05

they don't take you in as much as some of Rothko's earlier work.

0:53:050:53:08

They seem to

0:53:080:53:10

come back at you

0:53:100:53:12

with their materiality.

0:53:120:53:16

And Rothko said something, or hinted,

0:53:160:53:19

I think to a friend, that

0:53:190:53:22

when he was thinking about creating these pictures he was thinking about creating pictures that,

0:53:220:53:26

when you look at them,

0:53:260:53:29

what you're actually looking at is yourself.

0:53:290:53:32

So, what do you see when you look at these paintings,

0:53:570:54:01

you look into that glimmering void,

0:54:010:54:04

was that God, or just a trick of the light?

0:54:040:54:09

Are these pictures windows

0:54:090:54:12

through which we can glimpse some sense of transcendence,

0:54:120:54:16

some sense that there is something beyond

0:54:160:54:21

or are they walls that bear down on you, are they symbols of the fact this life is all we've got

0:54:210:54:28

and that there's no way out?

0:54:280:54:31

I think the beauty of it is that Rothko leaves it perfectly completely ambiguous.

0:54:310:54:39

There are no answers in here, only questions.

0:54:400:54:44

Almost all of the artists I've looked at in this film

0:55:070:55:10

were responding to the behemoth of the modern American city.

0:55:100:55:15

Some loved it, some hated it and the Abstract Expressionists

0:55:150:55:20

claim to have risen above it completely.

0:55:200:55:23

But I'm not so sure.

0:55:230:55:26

If you believe the rhetoric of the Abstract Expressionists

0:55:260:55:30

their's was an almost priestly art movement

0:55:300:55:33

entirely dedicated to transcending the banalities of daily life here in the city of New York.

0:55:330:55:40

There was Clyfford Still writing about the act of painting as a form of ecstasy.

0:55:400:55:44

In The Creation Of A Canvas Still wrote,

0:55:450:55:48

"It's as if I achieve a form of resurrection,

0:55:480:55:50

"I rise above the mundanities that oppress me in ordinary life."

0:55:500:55:56

One critic even wrote of Barnett Newman's principal signature device,

0:55:560:56:00

that strip dividing his canvases,

0:56:000:56:04

one critic compared that to God's primordial act of separating light from darkness

0:56:040:56:08

in the book of Genesis.

0:56:080:56:10

To me, when I am in a taxi travelling round New York,

0:56:120:56:16

everywhere I look I see evidence of the physical residue

0:56:160:56:21

this city left on the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists.

0:56:210:56:25

Think of Franz Kline's girder-like shapes,

0:56:250:56:30

like the shapes of a skyscraper under construction,

0:56:300:56:34

think of Rothko's great bruised walls of canvases

0:56:340:56:37

and I think of the bruised walls of New York's tenements.

0:56:370:56:41

Even Clyfford Still himself, you know, you can see those shapes of colour

0:56:410:56:47

as examples of patently excellency but you can equally well see them

0:56:470:56:51

as comparable to the visual experience of looking up in New York

0:56:510:56:57

and trying to see the sky past these slivers of skyscrapers,

0:56:570:57:00

these slabs of form that seem to be obscuring the light.

0:57:000:57:04

Even Pollock, I think of Pollock, yes,

0:57:040:57:07

I can think of him as an artist who evokes nature.

0:57:070:57:10

I can also think of an artist who evokes

0:57:100:57:15

the spatter of oil on asphalt

0:57:150:57:17

left by some car's shattered sump.

0:57:170:57:21

In one sense they wanted to rise above consumer culture,

0:57:240:57:28

capitalist culture, the culture of the city

0:57:280:57:31

and everything that that stood for in New York historically, economically, politically

0:57:310:57:36

but, on the other hand, their's was an art completely of the city.

0:57:360:57:40

Idealism and materialism

0:57:400:57:43

inextricably intertwined.

0:57:430:57:45

That's America.

0:57:480:57:52

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:210:58:24

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:240:58:27

In the second part of his fascinating journey exploring American art, Andrew Graham-Dixon gets under the skin of the modern American metropolis. Starting his journey at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, which he describes as a pioneering early skyscraper, Andrew discovers how the ambitions of visionary artists and architects helped America remove itself from the shadow of Europe and become the most advanced civilisation on earth. Andrew travels to downtown Manhattan to explore the grimy world of early 20th century painters John Sloan and George Bellows, and visits Stockbridge in Massachusetts to find out how the world of Norman Rockwell is not as sentimental as it first seems. In Chicago, he explores the visionary mind of architect Louis Sullivan and travels to the decaying outskirts of the city to see the underside of the American dream. He uncovers the impact the Great Depression had on artists such as Edward Hopper and Arshile Gorky, and finds out how this struggle inspired America's first internationally-acclaimed art movement - Abstract Expressionism. He pays a pilgrimage to Jackson Pollock's perfectly-preserved studio in Long Island to discover the secrets of his unique drip technique, before flying across America to take in one of modern art's most moving experiences, Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston, Texas.


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