Yankee doodles are just dandy

Crane Kalman's show of early American Modernists is revelatory. EXHIBITIONS : But are they really better than Magritte?;
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The Independent Culture
In London at the moment are three timely exhibitions devoted to American art. At the Camden Arts Centre are Barnett Newman's 1960s prints, small in format but tremendous in implication; the Tate has a display of six David Smith sculptures from the 1940s to the early 1960s, all works of the first class; and now the Crane Kalman Gallery has mounted a show of paintings called "American Modernism 1920-45", perhaps the most interesting of these tributes to the USA.

Not that Charles Biederman, Stuart Davis, Burgoyne Diller and others have the vision and high achievements of Abstract Expressionists like Newman and Smith. But the artists in this show do have the virtues of American art in its provincial period. These include plain dealing, a sense of fact, direct emotion and the kind of individuality that goes with modest but stubborn ways of life. Such qualities have long since disappeared, so there's some nostalgia in viewing these canvases. Patriotism appears as another virtue. This makes the exhibition doubly old- fashioned, for love of country was banished from US art after Jasper Johns' ironic flags and the war in Vietnam.

For some quite different flags, there's Miklos Suba's God Bless Them of 1942, a deft little picture, as invigorating as a good martial song - and somewhat sad too, for this crowd of banners must have been woven and decorated by the mothers of the boys who are going off to war. Suba (1880-1944) was born in Hungary and emigrated to Brooklyn in 1924. He was an architect; two of his drawings of factories and smokestacks are obviously by someone who learnt to use pen and pencil for professional reasons. One couldn't deduce this from his painting, which instinctively hits the right note of untutored American populism.

American painting of this period was tremendously frank about the things a painter observed, and was similarly honest about aesthetic ambitions. British painting in the 1920s and 1930s may have been more sophisticated, but in comparison it lacks openness and a sense of adventure. There's no US equivalent of a suave artist like Ben Nicholson, I'm glad to observe. Neither do I worry about provincialism. It used to be said that pre-war American painters were either subservient to Parisian Cubism or fatally limited because they were regionalists. Today, who cares? For recent New York art has been so meretricious that old provincial attitudes appear almost Olympian.

There are no regionalists in the Kalman show. None the less it presents pictures that could only have been produced by local circumstance. There's an extremely rare Stuart Davis from his earliest period, Coal Derrick (Town and Harbour). Its means are European but this is entirely an American canvas, inspired by the Provincetown (note the name) in which Davis found his first inspiration. I think he worried too much about his relations with Parisian art. Considering one of his even earlier canvases, Mobil Oil (Gas Station with Cars), probably of 1916, one wonders why he was not fully satisfied with his own country, or rather with his innate gifts.

Another Davis is Magazine and Cigar, and it's a cracker. Note that the picture would immediately fail without its plum-purple margin. The simple device of this interior frame emphasises the still-life objects. Otherwise they would be nonchalant. Davis composed well when he trusted his instincts and didn't get too fussy. At his best, he laid things out straight and let his colour and touch carry the picture. His mistake was to begin more elaborate paintings with a lot of Cubist-derived pencil scaffolding. Magazine and Cigar is enclosed by its margin, but still it's a free painting. I'd rather own it than a picture by Nicholson or Magritte, European artists who were doing similar things at about the same period.

These were knowing painters. Davis, Rawlston Crawford and Charles Sheeler were not innocent - just confident that their work did not require a mystique or the comforts of a coterie. They also realised that the middle-America they knew best was composed of artisans. Surely this had an effect on their attitudes and even on their use of pigment?

Crawford is another revelation. He travelled the world on tramp steamers before settling down as an artist who painted things he knew: boats on the Nantucket waterfront. By its own logic, Twisted Objects on the Deck became an abstraction. It's still realism, in that you can feel real things behind the abstract forms.

Utterly unreal is Arthur Dove's small After Image: little, pulsating, biomorphic and conceivably related to photography. This painting will be in the big Dove restrospective planned for the Whitney in 1998. The signs are that US museums are keen to revive the pre-war period, or - to be more accurate -the pre-Depression period. What this says about the mood of the country I could not hope to define. From the restricted point of view of an art critic, I just hope that more of America's sturdy and honest paintings are given their due.

! `American Modernism (1920-45)': Crane Kalman, SW3 (0171 584 7566), to 1 Dec.