Ashmolean Museum to Showcase Famous US Artists ‘Unknown’ in UK

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An exhibition of artists whose works have rarely or never been seen outside the US, dubbed “cool” in the 1920 and 30s when the word signified admirably restrained rather than achingly hip, will open next year at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Seventeen of of the 83 works have never left the US before, a further 21 have never been seen in the UK, and others haven’t been seen in Europe for almost a century.

“This is a rather selfish exhibition, originating in my own excitement in these artists who have only been viewable in the United States,” said Alexander Sturgis, the Ashmolean’s director.

“These are revelatory works of great power and significance, simply not known in this country for the most part. This was the era of speakeasies, of Scott Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age that we speak of in every other genre, so it is really surprising that we do not speak more of its artists.”

Most of the museum’s exhibitions are linked to its own huge collections. But America’s Cool Modernism makes an exception for works also missing from the walls of most other UK and European collections. The exhibition is book ended by two world-famous names, Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper, but will include many artists well known in the States but barely known beyond its shores because all their work has remained in American collections.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is sending an exceptional group of 18 loans, which Sturgis said was “not unrelated” to 26 drawings by Michaelangelo being sent to New York by the Ashmolean. The works are being sent on five separate flights.

The Met loans will include a painting that has become an American icon, I Saw the Figure 5 In Gold, though in his lifetime Charles Demuth could not sell it and left it to his friend Georgia O’Keefe. Intended in 1928 as a conceptual portrait of the poet William Carlos Williams, it is now seen as a remarkable precursor of postwar pop art, and was described by the critic Robert Hughes as “the one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it”.

Most of the museum’s exhibitions are linked to its own huge collections. But America’s Cool Modernism makes an exception for works also missing from the walls of most other UK and European collections. The exhibition is book ended by two world-famous names, Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper, but will include many artists well known in the States but barely known beyond its shores because all their work has remained in American collections.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is sending an exceptional group of 18 loans, which Sturgis said was “not unrelated” to 26 drawings by Michaelangelo being sent to New York by the Ashmolean. The works are being sent on five separate flights.

The Met loans will include a painting that has become an American icon, I Saw the Figure 5 In Gold, though in his lifetime Charles Demuth could not sell it and left it to his friend Georgia O’Keefe. Intended in 1928 as a conceptual portrait of the poet William Carlos Williams, it is now seen as a remarkable precursor of postwar pop art, and was described by the critic Robert Hughes as “the one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it”.

The other painters are now better known for their work in other media, including the poet EE Cummings, and Edward Steichen who destroyed many of his own paintings on the singular grounds that they were too popular and distracting attention from his photographs: his brilliantly coloured Sunflower was last exhibited in Europe in 1922, the year he painted it in Paris.

Katie Bourguignon, exhibition curator of the Terra Foundation in Chicago, which is a partner in the exhibition, said what united many of the paintings – whether urban, industrial or rural scenes – was that they were eerily empty of people, at a time of mass immigration and industrialisation. “It is a question to be asked: who are these missing people and why?”

Hopper is best known for his desolate figures in late-night diners or bleak hotel rooms. In his Manhattan Bridge Loop there is only one human, a tiny figure of a hunched man walking through an intimidatingly depopulated scene.

They were very well aware of contemporary art in Europe, she said, and of artists such as Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, but were instead trying to create a distinctive cool American aesthetic whose mood was often, but not always, celebratory.