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The Morton Schamberg retrospective
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A retrospective exhibition devoted to the work of an immensely gifted artist who died at an early age is bound to be an experience of special poignancy. The more we admire the work, the more likely we are to be haunted by thoughts of what the artist might have accomplished in the course of a normal life span. For in the perspective of his foreshortened career, his every solid achievement acquires a sort of double existence for us. There is the work itself, in all of its manifest quality, and there is also the possibility that accompanies it. To the extent that such artists make a difference in the art of their time, we seem to suffer their loss anew at each encounter with their best efforts.
In the case of Morton Livingston Schamberg, whose work is currently the subject of a traveling retrospective exhibition, there is the additional factor of the artist’s historical situation. Schamberg belonged to the first generation of American modernists, and he shared a good many of the difficulties faced by that generation in its effort to come to grips with the innovations of the European avant-garde. He was remarkably quick to grasp the importance of those innovations, and he proved to have the requisite gifts—including the gift of intelligence—for effectively adapting them to the lineaments of his own experience. At the same time, Schamberg felt very keenly the isolation that was the common fate of the modernist painter in his time, and knew from the outset that it was more or less out of the question for him to win a sympathetic public for the kind of art that most interested him or, indeed, to make a living from producing it. Yet none of this seems to have impeded his artistic progress once he had determined his course. His resoluteness in this respect would have been remarkable enough for an American artist in the early years of the century working in PAris or even New York. In the far more provincial atmosphere of Schamberg’s native Philadelphia, to which he remained firmly attached despite his contacts with Paris and New York, it entailed an exceptional exertion of will and independence. Only in the last years of his life—Schamberg died in 1918 two days before his thirty-seventh birthday—did the artist’s spirit falter. Yet even this change, when it occurred, had more to do with the historical enormity (as he saw it) of the First World War and its implications for his art than with any bitterness or disillusionment caused by resistance to the art itself.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1881, the youngest child in a German Jewish family that William C. Agee, in his essay for the catalogue accompanying the current retrospective, describes as “prosperous and conservative.” From what we know of them, the Schamergs were not a family much given to encouraging either artistic pursuits or unconventional behavior of any sort. The father was a dealer in cattle, the mother died when Schamberg was a child. All the same, Schamberg seems to have been treated with a good deal of consideration, and his family ties remained close. He was given an extensive artistic education—first in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he was graduated as a Bachelor of Architecture in 1903, and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he concentrated on painting for three years. (The friendships he made with Charles Sheeler and Walter Pach, who were fellow students in the Academy, date from this period; they appear to be the only close attachments Schamberg made outside of his immediate family.) While studying at the Academy under William Merritt Chase, he was treated to his first rips abroad. He was given a year in Paris upon the completion of his studies in 1906, and he journeyed to Europe again in 1908. All of this, as far as we know, was at the expense of the artist’s disapproving father. At the time of Schamberg’s death in 1918, both father and son resided at the same hotel in downtown Philadelphia. In quick succession both were victims of the influenza epidemic that swept the world in the last year of the war.
The earliest painting that we see in the current retrospective is The Regatta, which is signed and dated 1907. Exactly where this brilliant little picture was painted is not known—it depicts decorated sailboats observed from the shore, and was very likely executed during a summer visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts—but both its outdoor subject and its luminous, painterly style clearly reflect an admiring knowledge of the French Impressionists. Traces of this Impressionist manner persist for a time, but by 1909 it gives way tot he various Post-Impressionist strategies that give a radical priority to structure over sensation. Mr. Agee suggests that during his last stay in Europe, where he was joined for a time by Sheeler, Schamberg came under the influence of Leo Stein (whom he met through Pach). It was probably Stein who sent the two Philadelphians to Italy to study the Old Masters, for Stein had worked out an elaborate theory relating Italian quattrocento painting to the innovations of Cézanne and Matisse. It aws at this time, in any case, that Schamberg produced his remarkable copies of Piero della Francesca’s Duchess of Urbino and Lorenzo di Credi’s Venus—both are included in the current exhibition—and at this time, too, that he got to know the work of Matisse, with its highly original concentration on color and structure. Mr. Agee is no doubt right when he observes that “the intensity of this experience in 1909 was fundamental to the evolution of [Schamberg’s] art.”
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until he encountered it in the Armory Show in New York in 1913, that Cubism, which was to play a decisive role in his most original work, first made a very deep impression on Schamberg’s pictorial thought. (One wonders if Leo Stein, who was turning against Cubism, might have had something to do with this, too.) Perhaps he wasn’t ready to make use of Cubist form before 1913, for Schamberg was never an abject imitator or style-monger. In the period following his return to Philadelphia, he worked his way through the ideas he had acquired in EUrope, and these turned mainly on assimilating the work of Cézanne and Matisse. Even when he adopted Cubist form in 1913, he used it as a means of organizing his pictures into Cézannesque structures of color. Cubism gave Schamberg a way of geometrizing his subjects. The latter might not remain discernible, but whether or not the subject could be discerned, the effect was to relegate it to a subsidiary role and thus permit painting to enter the realm of abstraction. In the years 1913-15 Schamberg’s art remained poised on the shifting frontiers of the new abstract art, never quite taking possession of this unfamiliar terrain and never entirely withdrawing from it. Not that there is anything diffident in the pictures of this period. Far from it. We are made to feel a distinct acceleration in the scale of the artist’s ambition. The Armory Show seems to have renewed Schamberg’s confidence in his artist mission, and it certainly encouraged a greater degree of audacity in his art. He was himself represented in this historic exhibition, and it spurred him into acting for the first time as a public spokesman for the cause of modernism. He was even responsible for bringing a smaller version of the exhibition to Philadelphia. It is in the pictures of this period that we see Schamberg emerging from isolation to produce his most distinctive work.
It has long been recognized, of course, that it is in the machine paintings of the war years that Schamberg’s most original work is to be found. Historians have hitherto been a little too eager, perhaps to assume that these paintings were created under the direct influence of Picabia, Duchamp, and other avant-garde eminences of the day. The effect of this has been to blur our understanding of Schamberg’s own work and its role in sparking the development of the Precisionist movement in American painting—a movement essentially different in spirit and style from the variety of Dadaism that flourished in New York in this period. The whole subject is admittedly a tangled one. Schamberg was closely involved with the New York Dada group, and undoubtedly drew some sustenance from them. Yet his own interest in machine forms seems to have pre-dated theirs, and his paintings based on telephones and other machines show not the slightest trace of that peculiar amalgam of irony, mockery, comical eroticism, and cheerful nihilism we have come to recognize as the hallmark of their art. The note that is sounded is Schamberg’s machine paintings is, on the contrary, unmistakably one of admiration of lyric celebration, and is thus very much at odds with the Dada attitude. It was precisely because of his celebratory outlook, in fact, that Schamberg suffered a severe crisis over this work at the very moment when he was, as Mr. Agee says, “at the peak of his powers.” Appalled by the carnage of the war in Europe, he could no longer sustain his optimistic and somewhat innocent vision of machine civilization. “We may speculate,” writes Mr. Agee, “that Schamberg could not [reconcile] the lucid, ideal order of his machine paintings with the death and destruction that the machine was causing in the war.” Sometime in 1916, after creating an uninterrupted succession of brilliant pictures, he abruptly abandoned the machine paintings, and thus unwittingly brought his oeuvre to an end.
Before he died, however, Schamberg produced two works that may be taken as emblems of his divided outlook at the end, for the point in very different directions. One was the construction of a plumbing fixture mounted on a box that was mockingly entitled God (1917-18). This was Schamberg’s only authentic Dada creation, and Mr. Agee is surely correct in describing it as “a bitter war statement.” The other was a serene Bowl of Flowers (1918), an exquisitely realistic watercolor that is the artist’s last known work. From such a stark contrast of bitterness and serenity we are offered no very definite clues to the direction Schamberg’s art might have taken had he survived. All that we can be certain of is that his death marked an important loss for American art—more important than we have heretofore realized.
Of the nearly seventy works that make up the current retrospective, the most amazing—not only for their remarkable quality but because they have never before been published or exhibited—are a series of small pastels of machine images executed, it is believed in 1916. There are nearly twenty works on paper in this series, which was only recently discovered in Philadelphia, and they are unquestionably among Schamberg’s most beautiful pictures. Based on the forms of a Champion wire-stitching machine used by printers and bookbinders, these pastel Compositions, as they are called, are pictures of the most extraordinary delicacy—shimmering evocations of light and color that transform their given motifs into images of a flowerlike tenderness. Neither wholly abstract nor exactly representational, they are Schamberg’s most poetic works—and they remind us, incidentally, of how much remains to be discovered, and rediscovered, in the American art of his time.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 April 1983, on page 50
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