Before the new millennium 

Before the new millennium
Auspicious Vision
Through May 23 at the Mennello Museum of American Art
900 E. Princeton St.

In the early 20th century, European artists were more highly regarded than those in America. Edward Wales Root, a New York Sun reporter, rejected this idea and befriended the often destitute and feisty New York painters known as "The Eight." With his penchant for talent spotting, Root collected works from emerging artists who went on to create some of the most significant art of modern times. Now Root's collection is on tour from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., and it sizzles and thrills the viewer with the timeless feeling of discovery. These paintings matter.

Well-known innovators like Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) are supplemented by other distinct talents like Mark Tobey (1890-1976), a Seattle-based follower of Zen Buddhism. Tobey's sense of unified mankind is expressed in work like "Voyage of the Saints," an Arabic-like calligraphy of quiet contemplation; its endlessly meandering line work has a quiet, warm serenity unlike many other paintings in the exhibition. In contrast, Reginald Marsh's (1898-1954) "Texas Guinan and Her Gang" on linen, dated 1931, outrageously blares the New York club scene; the degenerate rich spill out of the canvas and the cabaret girls spill out of their costumes.

The centerpiece is Hopper's "The Camel's Hump," also from 1931, depicting a scene from his summer cottage in Cape Cod, Mass.; it is important for the huge emotional content invested in the landscape. Powerful shadows contrast with a vivid, clear sunlight, suggesting a late afternoon and a poignant sense of lost time; the day is quickly fading away, the sky slashes down and to the right almost parallel with the foreground hill, but soft grass and the tops of low bushes are still brightly lit.

Representing New York in the exhibit, de Kooning, Pollock, Stuart Davis (1992-1964) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) have their signature styles marked by early works that point the way. Rothko's "Number 11" oozes with portent, painted in 1949 as he was putting away his mythology series but had yet to paint his empty, shimmering rectangles.

The whole show is a study of potential, the legendary artists represented here were on the verge of discovery when they caught Root's eye. Peering at these paintings sensitizes the viewer to artists who rocked tradition before the dawn of the 21st century. Perhaps it will inspire a new generation of collectors.

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