Steve Martin, the comedian and film star, is using the force of his colourful personality this autumn to champion a vivid but little-known art movement founded by two young American artists who met in Paris in the early years of the 20th century.
Martin, 74, a fan of modern art, has joined forces with BBC radio to promote a neglected creative movement known as synchromism. Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell were students who had travelled separately to the French capital to learn from European avant-garde theories. They soon began to believe that colour was just as important as music to people, and that a painting should simply celebrate this, without straining to represent real life.
“In Paris they started working in this completely abstract way of painting,” Martin said. “They called it synchromism, which means ‘with colour’. They were really interested in colour wheels. They could create depth with only colour. They saw that some came forward and some receded, depending on what they were next to.”
As part of a new collaboration with MoMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast next month Martin’s appreciation of two synchromist works from the gallery’s collection that he feared had been forgotten. One, made by MacDonald-Wright in 1917, is called Synchromy, while the other, smaller work, Color Form Synchromy (Eidos), was painted by Russell five years later. “They are essentially minor things compared with most of the art that hangs at MoMA,” said Martin.
The programme is to go out as part of a season on Radio 3, The Way I See It, which will bring listeners fresh approaches to the visual art housed at MoMA from 30 well-known people.
Russell and MacDonald-Wright first studied together at the Sorbonne, and their work was heavily influenced by the daring use of colour seen in the works of Matisse and Cézanne. The two Americans became a big influence on other US modernists, including Albert Krehbiel and Thomas Hart Benton, and the cubists Patrick Henry Bruce and Andrew Dasburg. When MacDonald-Wright returned to America a year after painting Synchromy, he set up the first major exhibition of modern art in Los Angeles. Yet the pair’s claim to have invented their own school of painting was challenged later by other well-known European abstract artists, such as Robert and Sonia Delaunay, who argued that the Americans had copied their own ideas about the use of colour and shape, referred to as orphism.
For Martin, though, the work of the synchromists has been undervalued as a result and it is time for a reappraisal. “I believe that paintings reveal themselves over time. It is great to be able to live with a painting, or visit a painting in a museum and go back and back. And the good ones really do keep on giving. It’s amazing. A picture is stationary; it’s immobile and yet it changes for you.” He said from staring at the MacDonald-Wright he was now convinced it was intended as a landscape painting. “I now see almost a narrative story. I always thought this picture was one thing and then sat here for an hour and looked at it and it changed.” Russell’s painting he describes as “voluminous and floating”.
It is not necessary to understand the technical principles of synchromism, he argues, because the works still communicate.
“I don’t generally care about theories. The result of working from a theory could be fantastic, but you don’t really need to know the theory to look at it.”
The Radio 3 series will also feature artworks chosen by the scientist and author Steven Pinker and the standup comedian Margaret Cho, along with musicians, writers and philosophers.