Source: The Observer (www.observer.co.uk), by Laura Cumming
With over a century of works and full of surprises, a fascinating show reveals how American painting finally broke with Europe.
Coming of Age: American Art 1850s-1950s
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SW6, until 8 June
What a brilliant work of eye-fooling art the picture looks at first glance - an old-fashioned noticeboard criss-crossed with pink tape into which many mementos are tucked. Postcards, letters, a visiting card: everything is amazingly real and life-size. The flat wooden board, moreover, corresponds so exactly with the flat painting itself that the illusion feels flawless. Reach forward and you could so easily pluck that intriguing envelope from the lattice.
John Frederick Peto's Office Board for Smith Brothers Coal Company (1879) is a feat of trompe l'oeil, and famous for it, but it is far more than that. The envelope, for instance, carries the ominous message: 'Important Information Inside'. But the envelope is empty and you must deduce the contents for yourself. Two old keys are rusting on a peg. String dangles, papers are brusquely torn, the pink tape is beginning to fray. Smiths' Coal may once have been the best, according to a once-bright flier, but the doctor's card speaks of accident and illness and there is only one dinner ticket left.
Peto is outstanding. His pictures are fastidiously realistic yet sewn with these dark and anxious narratives. There is nothing like him in European painting, although he has inevitably been cannibalised by Postmodernists, and you can scarcely find his work in European galleries. In this respect he is the ideal representative of Coming of Age, a show of American art that is studded with revelations, curiosities and surprises.
Whistler's bleak Battersea Bridge, say, made before his art turned deliquescent, would have impressed Zola with its compassion for the workers. Or the Arshile Gorky landscape, nearly abstract, that turns out to have been painted by Man Ray. Tricolour flags shimmering in the May breeze could be Paris and Pissarro, but are actually Fifth Avenue and Childe Hassam during the First World War, celebrating the Allies. As for the three women drying their hair among the rooftops of Manhattan in 1912, a location familiar from Hollywood action movies, it is the strangest hybrid of Daumier, Munch and Hopper without being like any of them precisely, and an industrial pastoral all its own. John Sloan, the Philadelphia-born former illustrator who painted this urban vision, is renowned in America and entirely unknown, one guesses, in Britain. We think we know American art because we think we see so much of it, but this is something of an illusion too. Outside the Abstract Expressionist displays at Tate Modern and a few US masterpieces dotted round the country, where is the history of American art to be permanently seen? We do have an American Museum, to be sure, but it is committed to quilts.
If this show feels like a century of US art in essence, that is because it represents an entire museum condensed - namely the Addison Gallery of American Art, housed in a neo-classical temple outside Boston. Seventy works have been chosen to represent the museum's several thousand, from Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins to Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. The pictures by Eakins alone are worth a visit: gravely beautiful scenes of gas-lit America - a provincial boxing ring, the hero saluting; a piano in a puritan parlour, the air (and the picture) vibrating with austere music.
American art, as Robert Hughes has written, oscillates between dependence and invention. You could also say that it can't, or couldn't, decide just how American it ought to be. On the one hand were those who believed in the transcendency of the landscape; painters who saw manifest destiny in the Hudson River or Niagara Falls, and those all-American originals like Peto and Homer. On the other were those Modernists touched by Europe. The early rooms here are generally dependent - renovated Impressionism, lessons learned from Velazquez or Manet. But there's a sudden shift - skilfully dramatised by the curators - in the third room, where you turn from a wall of diluted Soutine and Picasso and find yourself face to face with Hopper, O'Keeffe and a wolf. Moonlight, Wolf (1909) is by Frederic Remington, and though you'd hardly call that master cowboy artist a force for the avant-garde, no matter that the beast's eyes glitter like Van Gogh stars in the prairie gloaming, this is neither a scene nor a picture you would ever see in Europe.
From this point onwards the impulse is to look at the show in a quite different way. Where you might have been wondering whether George Bellows, in his commemoration of New York acrobats, had ever seen the works of Manet, you start seeing the traffic in both directions. How long and hard our own late, lamented Patrick Caulfield must have looked at the paintings of Stuart Davis with their cool and laconic flatness, always open to a graphic rhyme or pun. How close the Irish-born Sean Scully gets to the architectural stripes of Frank Stella.
The last room is all Independence Day fireworks - the full punch of a Hans Hofmann figure in eye-popping colour, a Calder mobile sparkling like early spring blossoms, a majestic Stella describing the steel structures of the Lower East Side. And the outer limits of invention reached , as always, by Jackson Pollock.
But look at his Phosphorescence, in which the silver-grey surface is a mass of small-scale incidents in violet, cobalt, lemon and ultramarine that give off a constant flicker of light, and you'll surely think, in the context of this show, right back to Claude Monet. Floating fields of vision stretching all the way from Giverny to Long Island: New World art for Old.