Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- A woman’s plump derriere -- tightly wrapped in a pink negligee -- peeks out of the central bedroom window of a building’s dark facade in a painting by Edward Hopper.
In the bedroom’s adjacent window, a diaphanous white curtain is pulled provocatively outside by the wind. Wild, heated reds and oranges overflow the third window, suggesting a roaring furnace.
Hopper’s sexually charged, voyeuristic picture is the first thing to catch your eye as you cross the threshold of “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,” an amiable exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Next to Hopper’s “Night Windows” is his gothic “House by the Railroad,” the creepy model for the Bates Mansion in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
Nearby are crowd-pleasers such as Andrew Wyeth’s sweetly melodramatic “Christina’s World,” boxing prints by George Bellows and flowers by Georgia O’Keeffe.
A strong case is made for photography, with striking prints by Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston.
Don’t question how, exactly, all this adds up. Nor should you pine for the missing thesis and artists in this thematic assortment of about 100 works, mostly from MoMA’s deep storage.
Leaving out Alexander Calder, skirting the difficulties of pure abstraction and stopping completely short of the Abstract Expressionists, “American Modern” is rather flimsy.
Stuart Davis feels illustrative. Vanguard painters Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella look tame.
Still, it offers a range of small pleasures.
Gerald Murphy’s “Wasp and Pear” is about as comically pornographic as fruit can get, and a wall of Charles Burchfield is just eccentric enough to tip his scale toward the bizarre.
There is a grouping of figurative sculptures by Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman and William Zorach. Nadelman’s truly original men and women are charming, quirky, radical and sublime. Bridging ancient and modern, low-brow and high-brow, American and European art, they make and steal this show.
I enjoyed “American Modern.” Had it been more directed, it could have made a case for the “American-ness” of these artists.
Compared to their European counterparts at MoMA, most of the Americans here look as if they’re playing catch-up -- as if they’re on the outside of “Modern” looking in.
A superb complement to “American Modern” is MoMA’s pitch-perfect “Walker Evans American Photographs.”
Comprising about 60 pictures, it celebrates the 75th anniversary of the first one-person photography exhibition at the museum.
Among Evans’s plainspoken poetry -- urban and rural -- are homes, churches, sharecroppers, billboards, bums, farms and factories.
An automobile graveyard is as melancholy as a battlefield. The Brooklyn Bridge races overhead like a freight train. And the interactions of figures, signage and architecture, though found, feel as organized and symbolic as those on cathedral tympana.
Evans’s profound, Depression-era portrait of the United States transcends documentary to become what Lincoln Kirstein, in the original essay for the show, called a “powerful monument to our moment.”
“Walker Evans American Photographs” and “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,” which opens Aug. 17, both run through Jan. 26, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400; http://www.moma.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Jason Harper on cars.
To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.