Monday, April 21, 2008

American Beast

When young American artist Alfred Maurer met Henri Matisse in 1904 at Leo and Gertrude Stein’s salon, he knew the direction of his art had been changed forever. Born April 21, 1868, Maurer’s father, who had been an artist for Currier and Ives, pushed him in the direction of lyrical realism akin to that of William Merritt Chase, under whom Maurer had studied in the late 1890s, and Whistler, whose style Maurer had aped time and again. Seeing Matisse’s work, however, led him not to ape Matisse but to turn into a “beast” himself, i.e., one of the Fauves (French for “beast”). Maurer’s Fauve Landscape (above, from 1907) demonstrates how Matisse’s bold color and line freed the young American from all the constrictions of his training. When the mainstream art world still looked at Fauvism and Cubism as forms of mental illness, Maurer recognized their greatness and, more importantly, brought them to America for the first time.

Living in New York in the same studio as his father, Maurer soon found like-minded artists to help him promote his new way of painting. Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen's 291 gallery held exhibitions of Maurer’s avant-garde work along with that of John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. When the organizers of the landmark 1913 Armory Show, which introduced modern European art to mainstream America, searched for Americans to compare with masters such as Matisse and Cezanne, they picked four works by Maurer. Maurer’s Still Life (above, from 1919) shows a mix of his Cubist and Fauvist influences, taking apart the pieces of the still life yet representing them in the bold lines Matisse made famous in his works. Such success eased the fears of Maurer’s father, who feared that his son would never amount to anything in art.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Maurer continued to evolve, sponging up more and more European modernist influences. In works such as Two Girls (above, from the 1920s), the baroque grotesqueness of Germany’s New Objectivity, especially that of Otto Dix and George Grosz, seems to be on display. You can even see a touch of Amedeo Modigliani in the elongated necks of the two women. In many ways, Maurer was an ambassador of many of the cutting edge trends of European art, accepting them as his own and translating them into an American idiom. Unfortunately, after a long illness and difficult surgery, Maurer’s pain increased when his beloved father passed away at one hundred years of age. Unable to cope, Maurer took his own life two days later. Today, Alfred Maurer gets lost in the footnotes of modern art history, condemned as a poor copyist of the European masters. If nothing else, however, Maurer deserves credit for believing in his own eyes and recognizing greatness in others when he saw it.

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