Coming of Age, Dulwich Picture Gallery London
The American Scene, British Museum London

Refugees from Nazism forged American modernism. But many artists were soon on the move again

I would normally avoid singling out any work as the most important in a show, though there is no way of doing so with Josef Albers' Bent Back (A) and Dulwich Picture Gallery's Coming of Age: American Art 1850s to 1950s. Albers' abstract, of 1940, looks like an open door, and so it is. Step through it, and you're in the last room and decade of this silly exhibition – the moment when American art finally gets around to doing what the show's title has promised it will.

With Albers, a refugee from the Bauhaus, New York suddenly takes off as the epicentre of Western art, a place of hard edges and hard thinking. Walk through the decades and rooms before Bent Back (A), though, and you find yourself wondering what would have happened if German artists hadn't had to flee Hitler; whether America's art, like her rocket programme, doesn't owe Nazism a debt of gratitude.

This is not the view taken by Coming of Age, which sees the greatness of American art after 1940 as essentially home-grown. According to the show's catalogue, the art of the USA "evolved ... over the course of 100 years, from the provincial to the international"; an idea which, if you will excuse my French, is bollocks.

There is no linear progression in this show towards the sudden burst of genius embodied in Abstract Expressionism and catalogued by Clement Greenberg; rather the opposite, in fact. For all that the 1913 Armory show hit astonished New Yorkers with the European distortions of Cubism and Fauvism, American art for the most part remained doggedly parochial and backward-looking. To be sure, there are flashes of genius in the general dullness that marks the first five-sixths of this show; Whistler's Old Battersea Bridge of around 1860 and Man Ray's Ridgefield (1913) lodge in the mind as examples. But Man Ray had clearly been looking at Kandinsky rather than at Winslow Homer when he painted his picture, and both he and Whistler fled to Paris as soon as they could.

So why make American art out to be something that it wasn't? I can only assume that the curators of this sad little show wanted to flatter its lenders, the Addison Gallery in Massachusetts. If so, they have failed badly. Any attempt to sum up a century of national art-making in half a dozen cramped rooms and 70 necessarily small-scale pieces was bound to end up looking jejune, and Coming of Age does just that. Much of the most interesting American work pre-1940 was presumably either missing from the Addison's collection or simply too big to be shown. Thus, for example, there is nothing by Thomas Hart Benton here, although Benton's Regionalist murals are hugely important and one of his students was Jackson Pollock. Although the comparison is unfair, I couldn't help thinking of last year's magnificent Art in America show at the Bilbao Guggenheim, an exhibition whose vast numbers and spaces (and vastly intelligent curating) did its subject justice. Coming of Age moves on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice after Dulwich. What the notoriously fussy Italians will make of it can only be imagined.

By contrast, the British Museum's The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, uses twice as many works as the Dulwich show to look at a moment in US art that is half as long and involves a single medium. The American print really came into its own in the years around the Great War, its rapidity, expressionist contrasts and demotic prices chiming with the era's new fondness for the Common Man. Prints being self-effacing things, many of the works in this show are hardly known outside of the US. Yet The American Scene reveals print-making as a laboratory for home-grown experiment on a scale that can not fail to amaze.

"Realism" is an easy word to bandy about, as the Dulwich show proves. It was on paper rather than on canvas that American Realism really found its voice, though, with artists like George Bellows and Louis Lozowick evoking a world that was genuinely, if bleakly, modern. Lozowick's dark celebration of the city takes on the other big challenger for supremacy in American image-making: not Europe, but the cinema. And Bellows's lithographs of boxing bouts and executions may have their origins in Goya, but they lead, inexorably, to Andy Warhol's "Electric Chair" paintings of the 1960s. You can find out far more about American modernism in this focused show than from all the hyperbole of Dulwich, and save yourself £9 into the bargain.

'Coming of Age', Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254) to 8 June; 'The American Scene', British Museum, London WC1 (020-7323 8000) to 7 Sept

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test