Skip to main content

You are here

The Summation of a Century

The new exhibit "Ashcan to Abstraction - Modernism in America" brings more of the nationally important art collections of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts to the public it serves.

By Cheryl M. Keyser & photos by Turner Photography Studio

Twentieth century art came in with a whisper of gentility and ended with a bang of exuberance, as new forms – from subject to technique – broke centuries of tradition. This was a period in American life that saw major disruptions – immigration, two world ward, a depression, the economic dominance of the United States, the emancipation of women, civil rights, and other societal changes – all of which shook the roots of certainty in how we saw ourselves and the world around us.

Nowhere can the effects of these titanic changes be seen more dramatically than in the new long-term installation of works now on the walls of the recently renovated Kerstein Gallery at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (WCMFA).

The exhibit, “Ashcan to Abstraction – Modernism in America,” with works from the permanent collection of the WCMFA, which had been in storage for a number of years, runs the gamut. From the homey virtues of a small town depicted by beloved artist Norman Rockwell to the veritable electric shock of the multiple stripes of Gene Davis, one of the maters of the Washington Color School.

This exhibit is truly a gift the museum has given to its visitors, challenging them with a collision of sensory stimuli that starts the minute one enters the gallery. Gathered in one venue, the force of its energy dazzles.

Holly Koons McCullough, guest curator and executive director for the Greater Reston Arts Center in Virginia, has reinterpreted the importance of this work when the center of the art world moved from Europe to the United States, setting off the monumental effects of an art powered by the rumbling upheaval of the 20th century.

Experimentation became the overarching theme as artists sought new realities. From the “impish glow” (as Holly describes it) in the portrait of “Michael” by Robert Henri – who was himself a teacher to many of the artists who would interpret to Ashcan era – to the luminous “Yellow Moon” of Edward Steichen, there is a clear sense of novel means of interpretation. The stirrings of cubism in the “Portrait of Shanah” by Philip Guston, and the expression o the quintessential American music in “Jazz at Takoma Station” by Joseph Deweese Holston, all the old “rules” – perspective, theme, proportion, light – were tossed by the wayside as this art shook them off to the point that no set standard prevailed.

Indeed, the evidence of shattered realities can be seen most clearly by walking a few feet to the nearby gallery, which celebrates 19th century art. Its proper, measured works contrast strongly with the vitality the next century would bring.

As the 20th century opened, artists choose to paint more natural subject matter, and were influenced by the tumult around them. They evoked the daily, even gritty, life of their surroundings. No longer were there idealistic portraits of important figures or scenes harkening back to classicism. “The Grandmother” by Jerome Myers, for instance, reflects the vibrant street culture that exemplified immigrant life in large cities. Many artists were also kept solvent during the days of the Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Roosevelt Administration, painting images of everyday Americans, expressed not only in easel paintings but also large murals for public buildings.

But the real change cam after World War II when the canvas seemed almost assaulted by paint that was dripped, splashed, or missed with other elements to provide texture, and otherwise applied in a seemingly spontaneous manner. Holly calls this “America’s first original contribution to art history.”

Abstract or non-figurative art moved to the forefront. Art became geometric with spans of color or shapes that were hard to distinguish, buried in the myriad other forms in a painting, such as Keith Morrow Martin’s “Big Apple.” Holly calls this a “reimaging of a traditional still life and a true tour de force painting.”

Change also came to other types of artistic expression, also on display in the Kerstein Gallery. Malvina Hoffman’s small bronze, “Sicilian Fisherman,” is a fine example of the depiction of ordinary life, bypassing the heroic statues of the classical world and echoing the new themes of sculptors, such as August Rodin, under whom she studies. Or works in glass, such as Reuben Haley’s “Ruba Rombic Sugar Bowl and Creamer,” whose work was influenced by the 1925 Art Deco Paris Show.

The tearing of the masks of the past, creating a new manner of perceiving art, these men and women advanced what would become the artistic harbinger of the new century. Filled with constant clamor, finding new means of communication, exploring new technologies drawn rom electronics to space, these artists laid the groundwork for the vagaries of the future we now inhabit.

The subtly refurbished Kerstein Gallery enhances all of these forms of expression. There are formal gray walls and baseboards restored in proper proportion to the original interior – and in accordance with the easement of the Maryland Historic Trust Energy efficient LED lighting was installed, and for the convenience of visitors, an easily accessible large interactive touchscreen provides more information on the exhibit. All of this was done courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Kerstein, for whom the gallery is names, the Nora Roberts Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation, as well as the Washington County Gaming Commission.

“This exhibit brings more of the nationally important art collections of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts to the public it serves,” says Rebecca Massie Lane, executive director of the museum. “Through its exhibitions and programs, it created experiences that inspire and transform lives by connecting people to art.”

Visit the Museum

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
401 Museum Dr.
Hagerstown, MD