Wednesday June 16, 2021
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States became a cultural power. Avant-garde leaders in fine arts, architecture and other fields emigrated en masse to the United States, and the balance of cultural power shifted from Paris to New York. With this change, American modernism took root in earnest. Although the Armory Show of 1913 brought the first generation of modernists to this side of the Atlantic, America remained largely at the rear in its approach to artistic creation until the mid-twentieth century. However, New York was not the only stronghold of innovative art in America. Even locally, artists have explored new ways of making art. During a special exhibition presented until August at the Bert Gallery in Providence, the works of three important modernists are explored.
Bert Gallery’s summer exhibition Providence Modernism: Feldman, Leif & Peers focuses on Rhode Island’s own modernists by displaying pieces by the late Gordon Peers, Florence Leif and Walter Feldman. These artists have each donned in their own way the mantle of 20th century modernism and the results are fascinating.
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Gordon Peers, who died in 1988, was a RISD alumnus who worked closely with his mentor and RISD President John Frazier. His landscape work indicates his interest in creating lush fields of color and in reducing forms to essential parts. In paintings like those that focus on ships and harbors, Peers harnesses the pure aesthetic qualities of a hull or skyline to create images that explore form and design in new ways.
Florence Leif, another RISD graduate and wife of Peers, developed her own work until her sudden death in 1968. In her often thick-encrusted paintings, she played with texture and density. By accumulating and scratching the paint, Leif created objects of fantastic tactile quality. In a painting in the exhibition, Leif captures her husband Gordon fishing. Instead of a traditional narrative scene, the result is an in-depth examination of forms that results in subtle geometric overlays. Round puddles of bright light illuminate the otherwise dark depths of a lake while the mountainous backdrop highlights a silhouette outlined with sparing touches of paint.
In Walter Feldman’s work, visitors will appreciate the longer-term impact of modernist influences on an artist who had a long production run. Feldman started making art in his youth and continued to create until he was 90. A renowned professor at Brown University, he was educated at Yale University under the direct tutelage of Josef Albers. Feldman, who died in 2017, has had a varied career and his practice included painting, printmaking, mosaic, and the book arts. A decorated veteran, he fought in Europe and took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Feldman explored themes ranging from the sacred to the impact of war on him and his contemporaries.
In one of his first paintings, Roadway from 1952, a stretch of asphalt turns into an angular, wavy surface seemingly licked by tongues of flame. In a later piece, his Stele, Venus, and Mars, Feldman further reduced the description to sparingly indicate an abstract portal. The result is not that different from any of Mark Rothko’s hard-hitting color field works from the same period.
In the art of Peers and Leif, viewers might recognize the influence of the first generation of avant-garde European artists like CÃ©zanne, whose tendency for the modeled and mashed form is reproduced by both artists. In Feldman’s work, the effect of a somewhat later group of even more progressive art creators is evident. By comparing and contrasting the work of the three artists, visitors will develop a greater appreciation for the modernist tradition of New England.
When asked about her favorite aspect of this exhibition, Bert Gallery owner and director Catherine Little Bert said, âWhat excites me most about Modernism at the School of Providence is that it confirms once again that Providence was part of the progressive cultural maelstrom. Gordon Peers and Florence Leif of Rhode Island School of Design and Walter Feldman of Brown University brought to their community the new visual modernist ideas of the 20th century, the next step beyond realism to an exploration of form, color and composition on the canvas.
Bert Gallery, in business for over 30 years, is a major center for Rhode Island art and Catherine Bert is an expert in the field. By showing the work of these three modern artists, Bert gives viewers an exciting glimpse into how avant-garde ideas were transmuted through an American lens.
Bert Gallery is located at 24 Bridge Street in Providence. An online viewing room to accompany this exhibition is available at www.bertgallery.com.
June opening hours: until June 19 – Wednesday – Saturday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., and also by appointment
July opening hours: July 6 – July 24 – Wednesday – Friday 12 – 4, Saturday 10 – 2.