by Diane M. Fiske
A Chestnut Hill resident who, with another architect, designed the iconic PSFS building is featured in the current show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called “Modern Times: American Art 1910-1940.”
Architect George Howe, co- designer of the PSFS building at 12th and Market Streets with William Lescaze in the late 1920s is known for bringing the first International Style skyscraper to Philadelphia. The PSFS building, constructed in 1932, was also the first building in the city to support an upper story with a cantilever system.
Howe is one of the early 20th-century artists and architects whose work is displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the show, which runs from April to September of this year. The displayed items are part of the museum’s permanent collection and have not been displayed at the museum before.
The show celebrates a period when art was pushed in new directions in a period of social, technological and cultural change. It brings attention to the famous architect, Howe, who lived in a neo Norman house on his estate, High Hollow, in the Bells Mill area of Chestnut Hill in the late teens and early 1920s.
The 156 works on display show “the stylistic diversity and the beautiful chaos of innovation that made this period so dynamic and influential,” according to Jessica Todd Smith, curator of modern art and the organizer of the exhibit. She added that this is the first major display in the museum to focus exclusively on modern American art.
Architecture, she said, is an important part of this focus on the art of the time, which is displayed in one of the rooms of the show “that celebrates the emphasis on geometry” of the period.
“I was interested in including works of art in a variety of media to show how Modernism had an impact on architecture, decorative arts and design in addition to the fine arts: painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs,” Smith said.
One of the most vivid works on display is Charles Green Shaw’s gray, red and white vertical striped painting, which is untitled. It seems to stand out in the Dorrance gallery space dedicated to geometric or architectural exhibits.
Smith said of the Shaw painting, “It seems clear to me that it is influenced by the geometry of the built environment.”
Also in the geometric display is a bookcase by Paul Frankl set next to a screen by Donald Deksey. The wooden bookcase seems to be in the shape of a skyscraper.
The PSFS building is depicted in a print by Lloyd Ulberg. The gelatin, silver print image is 10 by 7 inches. It is displayed near chairs from the building and a silver set of gadgets for serving melted butter and salt to to serve with popcorn as well as a cocktail shaker, popular items to accompany alcoholic drinks, particularly during prohibition when they were banned.
There were several depictions of the silhouettes of buildings against a sky. A wooden engraving by Wharton H. Esherick, “Of A Great City,” shows images of a city from a keyboard through books and walls. “The City of Ambition,” a print by Alfred Stieglitz, shows the image of a city outlined against a white sky. It is part of the collection from Stieglitz.
Red buildings against white towers and the outline of a stormy sky are depicted in an oil painting by Charles DeMuth, dated 1920.
As Smith wrote in the introduction to the exhibit, “Working, shopping dancing, visiting the beach, attending the theater, none of these were invented between 1910 and 1950, but all were transformed. Industrialization revolutionized labor.”
“Artists of the modern movement,” Smith said, “looked at the changing world around them for inspiration and tried to capture the newness of these experiences through both the style and subjects of their work.”
Smith concludes in the exhibit statement: “Many modernists found their formal inspiration geometry off the skyscraper a symbol of America at the time, Others were drawn to the industrial form of factories, grain silos and oil refineries.”
In his introduction to the exhibit, Timothy Rub, the director and chief executive officer of the museum, said, “The exhibition provides us with a welcome opportunity to reassess the Museum’s exceptionally rich holdings of modern American Art and how we can display them to full advantage in the future when the museum completes its master plan.”
Diane Fiske is a freelance writer who has written about architecture and planning for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Chestnut Hill.