A spirit of individuality: American Modernists from the collection of Ted Shen

The American Modernists represented in the collection of Ted Shen created a distinct visual language and paved the way for future generations of artists

Ted Shen’s fascination with American Modernism began with Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, a 1919 painting he saw hanging in the famed art gallery of his alma mater, Yale University. A musical theatre composer and former investment banker, today Shen oversees The Ted & Mary Jo Shen Charitable Gift Fund, a philanthropic foundation. His journey as a collector has expanded greatly since that first sighting of Stella's masterpiece, broadening into a passion for other boundary-breaking artists of the genre, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis

Born from the period of accelerated societal and technological change in the early 20th century, American Modernism was not defined by a particular style or subject but instead represented a new form of expression. While inspired by European Modernist movements such as Cubism and Surrealism, American Modernist painters created a unique language that was defined by experimentation. ‘It was a brand new approach for art in America,’ explains Shen. ‘Explicitly or implicitly, they were each trying to create something that was distinctly American.’ 

On 21 April, 26 works will be offered as part of Modern American Masterworks from the Ted Shen Collection at Christie’s in New York. 

From rural to urban settings, across painting and drawing, portraiture and still lifes, abstract and figurative styles, the works in the collection illustrate the breadth of a movement that sought new ways to represent a rapidly modernising society, and the later artistic evolutions they anticipated. 

The American landscape 

One of the distinctly American subjects of the Modernist movement was the wide-ranging landscape of the United States. Spanning from Brooklyn to New Mexico, Maine to Massachusetts, the works in Shen’s collection showcase unique interpretations of the country’s diverse scenery.

bk-bridge-comp-2400

Left: August Mosca (1909-2003), Under the Brooklyn Bridge, 1945. Oil on canvas. 30 x 24 in (76.2 x 60.9 cm). Sold for $36,540; Right: Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Brooklyn Bridge. Crayon and pencil over photograph. 17 x 15¼ in (43.2 x 38.7 cm). Sold for $264,600. Both sold in Modern American Masterworks from the Ted Shen Collection on 21 April 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Drawing on his connection to Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, Shen sought out bridge scenes, later extending into views of Lower Manhattan. Two depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge highlight the technological innovations of the early century. Stella’s drawing Study for Brooklyn Bridge captures the immense, almost holy reverence that the bridge inspired in the artist. A subject the artist would return to again and again throughout his career, the bridge embodied the spirit of the Machine Age.

Stella’s close friend August Mosca was also fascinated by the bridge’s dynamism. New York was Mosca’s primary muse. He drew from all aspects of urban life, from subway tunnels and train tracks to the ever-changing skyline. In Mosca’s Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1945), we see a similar treatment to Stella’s, with the bridge set against a backdrop of what appears to be stained glass, elevating it to a divine status. 

But it was not only urban environments that inspired artists to push beyond convention. Shen’s collection shows the diversity of the American landscape, from Maine to New Mexico.

John Marin was one of many artists drawn to the coast of Maine, where he summered at Cape Split from 1933-1953. In Lobster Boat, Cape Split, Maine (1938), Marin’s infatuation with the state’s natural beauty is laid bare. He uses bold brushstrokes to convey the complexity of the environment, and we can almost feel the swelling of the surf and movement of the wind as the lobster boat cuts through the water. 

Marin was also drawn to New Mexico, as were Hartley and O’Keeffe, other artists represented in Shen’s collection. Today, O’Keeffe remains the artist most closely associated with the American southwest, where she settled permanently in 1940.

O’Keeffe immortalized the landscape of her beloved home across decades, reveling in the contours of the hills and ‘a feeling of much space,’ as she wrote in a 1942 letter to Arthur Dove. In Lavender & Green Hill, Ghost Ranch (1935), O’Keeffe pares the scenery down to its rugged shapes and rich colours. Beyond the tips of the hills, she includes segments of a bright blue sky, expressing both the drama of the scenery and the feeling of space she so cherished. 

A certain musicality 

Landscape was abstracted further by artists like Davis, who translated European styles into something wholly new. In Analogical Emblem (c. 1935), Davis creates a new brand of abstraction rooted in physical environment and influenced by the Cubist idea of ‘alloverness.’ 

The complex composition, though chaotic, includes multiple signposts of place: a felled tree, a doorway, ladders and lights. A highway cuts across the foreground. All are rendered in bold swaths of colour, a nod, perhaps, to Henri Matisse’s Fauvism.

Defined by a sweeping dynamism, Davis’s work was also influenced by the burgeoning jazz movement of the era. Many of his paintings, with their bold abstraction and jumbled composition, visually evoke the improvisational sound of jazz music. 

As a composer and a dedicated patron of musical theatre, Shen was naturally drawn to Davis’s lyricism. ‘I'm just as passionate about music as I am about art, and that relationship certainly applies to my collecting interest in Stuart Davis,’ he says. ‘I haven't thought about music in relation to the other artists, but there is a rhythmic vitality in the works of some of the other American Modernists in my collection that seems related to musicality.’ 

Unlike anything else 

Another artist who pioneered a singularly American style was Hartley. Influenced by his travels throughout France and Germany, Hartley returned to the United States in 1930 with an original aesthetic that was distinct from any other movement. 

Like the other artists of the era, Hartley drew extensively on place. His home state of Maine would become his principal inspiration in the later years of his life, when he sought to become ‘the painter from Maine’ during a period dominated by Regionalism. 

Shen came across Hartley ‘chronologically,’ he says, because he was one of the earliest artists of the American Modernist movement. ‘His appeal to me derived from the always-evolving originality of his imagery and the personal intensity that he infused into each painting.’ In On the Beach (1940-41), this spirit of individuality is on full display.

Here, Hartley combines his passion for the seascapes of Maine with his later interest in figuration in an exploration of masculinity, sexuality and intimacy. During this period, figurative works dominate Hartley’s output, and the beach provided a perfect place to observe the human body. These figures, muscled and rendered in distinct poses, are reminiscent of Paul Cezanne’s Bathers, underscoring Hartley’s enduring interest in the French artist. 

Hartley embodies the spirit of American Modernism: everchanging and wholly individual. ‘Their art was wonderfully original and not derivative,’ Shen says of the movement, ‘as their isolation required them to subsist and create as “pure” artists, each separately developing his or her own form of expression that would be distinctively new, fresh, personal and “modern.”’

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