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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition