New York’s Uneasy Modernist
Max Weber’s Still Lifes at Gerald Peters Gallery
MAX WEBER (1881-1961) WAS ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED and versatile of the American modernists associated with the Stieglitz circle. Among the first to bring the School of Paris to America, he grafted Parisian ideas onto New York subjects with an ingenuity and kinetic verve evocative of a city that was unlike any other in the world a century ago. He was also the first American painter to depict scenes of Jewish life.
Today, his work is hardly visible in the very city that ignited his gifts. The Metropolitan rarely displays his Futurist pastel “Slide Lecture at the Metropolitan” (1916). The Jewish Museum holds only Weber’s Mannerist-inspired “The Talmudists” (1934); the Whitney has his marvelous Cubist invention “Chinese Restaurant” (1915). While both are on permanent display, you have to hop to D.C. for a fuller view of Weber at The National Gallery, the Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Consequently, this generous show of some 35 paintings and works on paper, from 1908 to 1950, at Gerald Peters Gallery is welcome.
Born in Bialystok, Russia, to Orthodox Jewish parents, he was brought to America when he was ten and raised in Brooklyn. He studied art at Pratt Institute between 1898 and 1900 with Arthur Wesley Dow, a preeminent teacher of abstract principles of composition. In 1905, Weber left for Paris where he enrolled at the Academie Julian, a mecca for non-French students. He immersed himself in the milieu of the Parisian avant garde, met Picasso, exhibited in the Salon d’ Automne and studied briefly under Henri Matisse. In Paris, he encountered the work of Cezanne and El Greco – life-long influences – and discovered the Fauves, drawn to their dramatic color and bold, flat patterns.
Back in New York in 1909, Weber held his first exhibition in the basement of a framing shop. Later that year, Edward Steichen introduced Weber to Alfred Steiglitz whose Fifth Avenue gallery, 291, was the locus for New York City modernists. His exhibitions at 291 were poorly received by local critics. Stung by partial acceptance, he withdrew altogether from the 1913 Armory Show when some of his submissions were rejected. Gradually, he steered toward expressionist handling of representational images, concentrating on Jewish subjects.
Still life remained a staple throughout his career, making the genre a useful pivot for this exhibition. Nevertheless, the show, however gratifying, limits our grasp of his work by excluding cityscapes and intereriors, his many figurative paintings and prints as well as the Russian-Jewish motifs.
Like Andre Derain, Weber turned away from the analytical rigor of his early immersion in Cubist conceptions. Critical opinion is divided on the aesthetic value of the work of both men after the 1920s. Derain, preoccupied with tradition, was never fully at home with modernity’s disjunctions. No agreement exists on the reason for Weber’s sidestep, one that accommodated his era’s fascination with art as a spear carrier for racial identity. Whatever the impetus, Weber exchanged improvisational brilliance for critical recognition. His Jewish themes, signature motifs through the late 1920s onward, gained the most appreciative notice.
Völkisch theorizing and cultural separatism were in the air. W.E.B. DuBois published “The Gift of Black Folk,” in 1924. Duncan Phillips, who began collecting Weber in 1925, dismissed Weber’s high modernist experiments as derivative, preferring the Judaic themes which he deemed “deeply sincere and pious.” His comment on Weber’s Picassoesque “Draped Head” (c. 1923) is instructive: “The tormented soul of a Race speaks through this portrait which carries on the Byzantine and El Greco traditions.” Reference to race aside, derivation was admirable where it affirmed formal approaches Phillips favored.
Phillips’s asserts the same reductive condescension that prompted Carl Van Vechten, tour guide to the Harlem Renaissance, to encourage black artists to seek a “black aesthetic” and adopt Africanized forms considered theirs by nature. Black artists had rhythm; Jewish ones had kavanah and memories of the shtetl. (Raphael Soyer, Weber’s contemporary and fellow Russian emigré, rejected – to his credit – attempts to parochialize him as “the Isaac Bashevis Singer of painting.”)
Weber’s defection from modernist innovation took its toll on pictorial vigor, evident here in the still lifes. Much wonderful painting is on view but only some of it suggests the imaginative fecundity or structural complexity of his ambitious Cubist works. Weber’s mastery of spatial dislocations is best evident in “Abstract Still Life” (1914), a pastel. “Imaginative Still Life” (1918), a striking arrangement of pattern and color, puts archaized forms to modern purposes.
“Italian Pitcher” (1921) earns pride of place. The impossible tilt of a table atop the strong verticals of its legs elevate the monumental solidity of a classically shaped white vessel. Its majestic formal approach and deep tonality shares much with Derain’s still lifes from around 1912. Weber’s composition was conceived a continent and a decade away, testimony to the strength of his initial affinity with Parisian modernism. Harmonic rhythms and counterbalances animate “Strewn Apples” (1923).
Inventive design and the splendor of intense coloration with delicately shifting tones reside in these and other works prior to 1930.
Weber was a beautiful draftsman. His linear, Cezannesque watercolors are enchanting. “Egyptian Bowl and Apples” (1925), its classical severity of line softened by delicately colored contours, is particularly fine. Later paintings hover in the middle register of expressionism, placid compositions presented with a nervous brushiness. In centered floral pieces like “Russian Pitcher” (1936) or “Colonial Table” (1942), interest lies in the scumbled surface, not the composition.
But for the mote in Duncan Phillips’s famously influential eye, Weber’s place in the history of early American modernism might be clearer.
“Max Weber: Four Decades of Still Life Painting” at Gerald Peters Gallery (24 East 78th Street, 212-628-9760).
This essay appeared first in The New York Sun, May 11, 2006.
Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey