Fulton has selected this show of 67 paintings and works on paper, along with several irrelevant pieces of sculpture, to document his thesis. The show emphasizes landscape, although it includes a few nature-inspired still lifes and several abstractions worked up from landscape motifs.
Fulton's problem is not so much to make a case for an American infatuation with nature, which has long been evident in the work of our principal early modernists, but to decide who should be considered a modernist. Furthermore, not all American artists who worked between 1905 and 1930, which Fulton defines as modernism's peak years, were attracted to natural motifs.
For example, no one from the Robert Henri circle, the so-called Ash Can School, is included, although Henri's brand of radical naturalism was certainly avant-garde in its day. The Eight, as they also were known, were
mainly painters of urban life in the realist tradition. Other important modernists were likewise not so involved with nature, among them Morton Livingston Schamberg, Max Weber and Stuart Davis.
Fulton's definition of modernism is sufficiently elastic, however, to accommodate Charles Burchfield, Rockwell Kent and Will Henry Stevens, all of whom would be just as comfortable in the 19th century as in this one.
In the way he has defined his terms and made his selections, then, Fulton has stacked the deck somewhat. His exhibition focuses on the artists identified with photographer Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth - all of whom frequently developed nature themes.
Although it would be possible to construct an exhibition of work by those same artists from the same period that would emphasize other themes, Fulton's point is well taken - and, because it's not often considered, it deserves this degree of attention. Nature offered a logical point of departure for abstraction, as we see here in paintings by O'Keeffe and Dove and lesser-known
artists such as Manierre Dawson and Augustus Vincent Tack.
Another major problem is the show's ambiguous installation. After beginning in a "pre-modernist" gallery that includes work by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Blakelock, Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn and Louis Eilshemius, the viewer is left without a clue as to his intended progression - if, indeed, there is supposed to be one.
The work of individual artists isn't grouped, but scattered. Unusual juxtapositions, like that of Burchfield and Marin, aren't explained. And the exhibition doesn't end, it just runs out of wall space.
Since the viewer is looking at individual artists, however, not at developmental movements, this isn't a fatal flaw. The show can be enjoyed picture by picture - the Eilshemius fantasy and a quintessential O'Keeffe close-up of poppies are especially memorable. Of the major artists, O'Keeffe and Hartley are the best represented.
Whatever the show's limitations, it's encouraging to see such attention paid to early American modernism, which has been undervalued for too long.
Allentown Art Museum, Fifth and Court Streets, Allentown. 432-4333. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free admission. Through May 31.
To mark the 10th anniversary of its Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College has installed an exhibition of work by Louise Nevelson.
Organized by the Fairfield County, Conn., branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art, this show of 46 works from the late 1920s to the mid-1980s - with a concentration in the 1950s and '60s - functions as a small-scale retrospective. That is, it not only covers nearly 60 years of Nevelson's career, but it shows her working in a broad range of media - wood and stone sculpture, prints, drawings, cast paper, paintings and collage. Nevelson has become so identified with her massive sculptures, assembled from wooden objects and painted black, white or gold, that her versatility is sometimes neglected.
The most surprising works are the earliest, less frequently seen ones. Among these are two ink figure drawings in a Matissean mode from 1932 and a crayon drawing of elongated figures superimposed on a face, apparently her own, done in 1928.
Several terra-cotta sculptures from Nevelson's Moving-Static-Moving series of the mid-1940s are equally piquant. These consist of elements mounted on a vertical dowel so they can be rotated, or even interchanged with other sculptures in the series. Nevelson has inscribed the surfaces with decorative lines and faces in a style reminiscent of Miro or Klee.
The show also includes three large standing sculptures - one of which, Young Shadows, is one of Nevelson's earliest stacked-box pieces. Its space is relatively shallow, almost like a high relief.
Although the show is offered solely as a sampling of Nevelson's work, it's sufficiently comprehensive to illustrate how that work has become less studied and formal, and correspondingly more playful and even mischievous, as the decades have passed.
Muhlenberg College, Center for the Arts, Chew Street, Allentown. 821-3466. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 17.