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Urban Reality as an American Work of Art:
From the Ash Can School to Pop Art

There’s more to see at “MoMA in Berlin” than the works of Pop greats like Roy Lichtenstein or Tom Wesselmann. Visitors can discover Pop’s forerunners from the “Ash Can School” and “New York Dada” here, as well. Complementing the show in the New National Gallery, Berlin’s Kunst-Werke is currently showing “Screen Tests” and other films from Warhol’s Factory – filmed versions of his silkscreen paintings presented as moving portraits in wooden frames and passepartouts. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the American tradition of the real and Pop Art in the context of the “MoMA in Berlin.”

Tom Wesselmann, Stil Life #30, 1963
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

"MoMA in Berlin", 2004: exhibition view
Photo © Jens Liebchen

All that Jazz
If the chronological path through The MoMA in Berlin generally progresses like a tour through 20th-century art history, times and epochs nonetheless overlap here and there. This is when friction starts to spark between certain works of art, providing a fantastic sense of what it really means to be “modern.” An example for this can be found in the lower level of the National Gallery, where works of American Modernism by artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, or Stuart Davis border on sixties Pop Art. The encounter has an amazing effect: although almost forty years lie between Stuart Davis’ graphically reduced oil painting Odol (1924) and Tom Wesselmann’s kitchen assemblage Still Life #30 (1963) in cool mint hues, they are both imbued with the same esprit.

In their own individual ways, both works stand for a reduction to “what is,” for a direct visual language of everyday things, products, and packaging – and they represent those attributes typical to an American art tending towards the real: pragmatism, objectivity, a sense of reality, and entertainment.

Stuart Davis, Odol, 1924
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004
With Stuart Davis (1894–1963), the Pop artists in The MoMA in Berlin are preceded by an American original – a homegrown Cubist whose paintings combined bright, unmodulated color with clear, hard-edged form. The list he drew up in the mid-forties of things that inspired him to paint conveys the cool urban rhythm that characterizes his painting: “… skyscraper architecture, the brilliant colors on gasoline stations, chain store fronts, and taxi cabs; … fast travel by train, auto, and airplane which brought multiple and new perspectives; electric signs, … 5&10 cent store kitchen utensils; movie and radio: Earl Hines’ hot piano and Negro jazz music in general.” Although Davis clearly distanced himself from realistic representation in his painting, he was always concerned with the “realism” of objects, reducing them to elementary forms and lines in his work. Davis gave the name “Configurations” to the drawings of light bulbs, matchboxes, packs of cigarettes, and ads that formed the basis for his paintings. Advertising, architecture, and type flow into Davis’ work in a dynamic way and document the commodity society’s incessant change.

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund

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