“Even today,” says curator Barbara Haskell, “people are befuddled — how can the Whitney be showing Lyonel Feininger?” With his German name, years of teaching at the Bauhaus, and branding by the Nazis as a degenerate artist, Feininger, who is being celebrated with a retrospective, organized by Haskell, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art from the 30th of June through October 16, is often overlooked as a native son.
The New York-born artist has defied stylistic as well as national labeling. Although he is best known for prismatic renderings of village churches and Baltic seascapes that combine the symbolism of the German Romantics with the fractured planes of the Cubists, his influences are broad — from newspaper comics to Der Blaue Reiter, from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College. “Feininger is hard to classify, and I think this has impeded a proper understanding of his achievement,” says Jane Kallir, of New York’s Galerie St. Etienne, which specializes in artists active in Germany and Austria during the early part of the 20th century. “He wore so many hats.”
This multifarious approach is one reason for the attention his work is getting now. “Feininger is the perfect model of the postmodern artist,” Haskell explains. “While the paintings are the spine of his output, he predicted a much freer attitude toward media.” Indeed, Feininger worked in a wide range of media: oils, watercolors, sketches, photographs, woodcuts — even hand-carved playthings that exhibit his signature humor, borrowing from childhood with both nostalgia and irony while pushing the envelope in formal experimentation. The gamut is on display in the comprehensive Whitney show and a pair of traveling exhibitions of works on paper and photographs from Harvard University’s art museums, at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne through July 17, and then at the Getty in Los Angeles before returning to Cambridge in March 2012.
Feininger is drawing notice in the saleroom too. At Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, his 1915 oil “Jesuiten III,” depicting three Jesuits eyeing a streetwalker, raced past its $9 million high estimate to $23.3 million, and at the house’s sale in London this February, the 1912 steamboat picture “Raddampfer an Landungssteg” (“Side-Wheel Steamer at the Landing”) more than doubled expectations when it brought $5.1 million. “His market was for a long time undervalued and overlooked,” says David Norman, worldwide cochair of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, adding that Feininger has benefited from a general change in buyers’ tastes over the past decade, from favoring “delicate, retiring pictures” to preferring those with greater visual impact. “People are drawn to strong compositions and brilliant color. They want something that goes bam! off the wall.”