The “Fall” in the exhibition title is the Great Depression. It began in 1929 with a stock market crash. After that, things got worse. Banks failed and unemployment soared. Brokers sold apples for a nickel and veterans assembled in camps to demand help. By 1933, the unemployment rate reached twenty-five percent. And despite the alphabet soup of jobs programs—CCC, CWA and WPA—it took a second world war to mobilize capital and reduce unemployment to single digits. We experienced something bad in 2007 and 2008, but it was nothing like the Depression.
And yet the art in those years was pretty good. It was the time when American artists woke up to reality. The first things you see in the AIC exhibition are Edward Hopper’s panorama of urban death-in-life, “Early Sunday Morning” (1930) and Grant Wood’s paean to the idiocy of rural life, “American Gothic” (1930). After that is Alice Neel’s knockout “Portrait of Pat Whalen” (1934). The longshoreman and Communist is shown at a table, fists on the Daily Worker newspaper, and steely-blue eyes fixed on revolution—Van Gogh meets Otto Dix. Next comes “Roustabouts” (1934), the first of two pictures by the great Joe Jones—self-taught, fearless, Communist and notorious. It’s a tough image: think “On the Waterfront” with a cast from “The Emperor Jones.” “American Justice” (1933) is even tougher, but the lynched black woman looks too much like a femme fatale by Tamara de Lempicka.
I wish the rest of the exhibition were as good as this first section. Unfortunately, the organizing themes—regionalism, abstraction, social realism, etc.—dissolve the specificity of the works in the warm soup of style. Yes, there are many more terrific pictures: by Archibald Motley, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keefe (though she seems to have overlooked the Depression). And there is a fiery Philip Guston, “Bombardment” (1937), that itself is worth the price of admission. But the AIC blew a chance to tell the full story of the Great Depression in pictures. (Where are the graphic arts?!) However given the state of the global economy, it is likely to have another chance. (Stephen F. Eisenman)
Through September 18 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan