Published: May 21, 2002
NEW YORK CITY – Spanierman Gallery, LLC, will open “James Daugherty (1887-1974): Late Abstractions.” The exhibition, comprising 27 oils and acrylics and 38 oil pastels, presents through July 6 the remarkable abstract color paintings that this important Twentieth Century American modernist created during the last 20 years of his life. P
Previously unknown outside of a small circle of family and friends, this work is being exhibited for the first time, and the show brings much-deserved recognition to this overlooked phase of Daugherty’s long and distinguished career.
Prior to his immersion in the language of color painting in 1914-17, Daugherty gradually worked his way into modernist art. He was born in 1887, in Asheville, N.C., and grew up on farms in Ohio and Indiana before his family moved to Washington, D.C. From a young age he drew and made illustrations, and by the time he was 16, he was taking evening classes at the Corcoran School of Art.
In 1913 Daugherty’s eyes were opened to a world of new possibilities by the landmark Armory Show and his discovery of a book by C. Lewis Hind, Post-Impressionism, which had been published in 1911. As he later described it, he “went modern with a vengeance.” His initial foray into modernism consisted of Futurist-inspired works in which swirling and intersecting figures were abstracted and fragmented in the nonstop movement of popular activities such as baseball and dancing.
Daugherty’s art took a dramatic and defining turn in 1915, when he came into contact with Arthur B. Frost, Jr, another young American artist, who had recently returned from Paris. Inspired by Frost’s example, Daugherty began to explore the use of pure color in conjunction with abstract design. He soon developed a style consisting of highly complex arrangements of strips, segments and circles of color. Daugherty quickly became one of the foremost proponents of color painting and in turn, influenced other young American painters, including Jay Van Everen.
In the 1920s, Daugherty responded to the call for indigenous subject matter by adopting a more figurative style while retaining his former emphasis on vibrant color. He subsequently produced numerous easel paintings and murals, most notably his “Spirit of Cinema America” (1920; Loew’s State Theatre, Cleveland). He continued his mural work into the 1930s, but eventually devoted the majority of his time to illustrating children’s books.
The first of Daugherty’s later paintings such as “Portable Bomb Shelter” of 1953 were small and created in an irregular geometric format of broad horizontal and vertical bands. With their relatively stable compositions and subdued palettes, they suggest the pervasive influence exerted by the work of Piet Mondrian after that artist’s death in New York in 1944. Soon Daugherty worked his way back into the discipline of abstract painting, and by 1957-58 he was working a full throttle, expanding to much larger sizes, breaking from the grid and using increasingly complex formats as in “Tensions” of 1957 and “Aldrin” of 1958.
In the years that followed, Daugherty continued to alternate modes. In 1960, in works such as “Abstraction with Red Sun,” he returned to the old rectilinear format of vertical and horizontal, but he joined these elements with circles, producing a distinctly new feel. In two subsequent works, “Yellow Sun” (1961) and “The Day the Sun Stood Still” (1961), he used a lighter, more refined painterly touch, with layered, almost transparent color planes recalling the color veils of Rothko’s art. Daugherty used color and light in his works to make “shapes of glorious majesty that spoke of a higher power in the universe.”
By 1965 Daugherty’s work had reached a greater peak of size, complexity and color intensity as demonstrated in works such as “Simultaneous,” circa 1965, and “Cape Canaveral” (1965). The explosive energies of these paintings put into physical form what Daugherty called the “out rushing forces of the cosmos” in an “ever expanding infinitude.” Many of the works of this time, including “The Weight of Weightlessness,” circa 1965, refer to the new world of space travel with singular shapes, each clear and distinct from the others, floating freely in unbounded pictorial space. Fusing the old and the contemporary, Daugherty referred both to early modernism and to the abstract illusionism developed by younger artists in the 1960s such as Frank Stella, Al Held and Ron Davis.
Daugherty continued to paint until the end of his life, never ceasing to experiment and find ways that abstraction could “restore meaning to life and announce its beauty and capacity.”
In his late abstractions, Daugherty referenced his modernist beginning while finding inspiration in the contemporary world. Bridging two generations of modern art as he moved his art in new directions, Daugherty’s late works reveal a strength and assurance gained from a lifetime of painting.
The gallery, 45 East 58th Street, is open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. For more information, 212-832-0208.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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