The brief but influential Dada movement, whose central figures in New York were French émigrés Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), viewed technology as a key metaphor of modern society. “The machine”, Picabia observed in 1915, “has become more than a mere adjunct of life. It is really part of human life, perhaps the very soul.” This was shortly before his showing of a series of ‘object portraits’ in which drawings of machines stood in for actual people. Perhaps the best known ‘Here is Stieglitz’, (1915).
Dadaists responded to industrial technology with subversive playfulness. Duchamp conveyed a sardonic humor in his masterpiece ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (1915-23), an assemblage of oil, wire, lead foil and ‘dust’ on a couple of glass panes. Absurdity is part of the experience, shocking at the time, meant to subvert the viewer’s expectations. Even more notorious in the regard was Duchamps’’Fountain’ (1917) a porcelain urinal that he submitted to a supposedly open show by the Society of Independent Artists. He called such works ‘ready-mades’, and the presaged by some 40 years the use of ‘found objects’ by artists like Jasper Johns (1930-) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-). Working in the same vein was Man Ray (1890-1976) who created found-object sculptures like ‘New York’ (1917), a bundle of chrome strips held tight with C-clamps. It was Man Ray who published the first ‘American Dada periodical’, a single sheet folded into four pages, his one-issue Ridgefield Gazook, from Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he rented a house with artist Samuel Halpert.
The name Orphism was coined by writer Guillaume Apollinaire in 1912 for paintings he saw in Paris by Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). Orpheus was the Greek god of music and lyrics. The term also derives from the Symbolist musical term Orphique, meaning "entrancingly lyrical." The movement was active in Paris between 1911 and 1914, and among Orphists were Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. Painters associated with Orphism infused vivid colors into the somber tones of Analytic Cubism. They believed that musical, literary or visual sensations have equivalents in other mediums of expression. Very early paintings depicted modern life, but by 1911 the works are non-representational. The style was colorful, kaleidoscopic patterns of geometric shapes. This group included American ‘synchromist’ painter Morgan Russell (1886-1953).
The term Surrealism was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, and created into a movement by poet Andre Breton in 1924. “Surrealism: pure, psychic automatism, through which one seeks to express the real course of one's thinking... Instinctive thinking without any control by reason and outside all aesthetic or ethical considerations." Surrealism has a lot in common with Sigmund Freud's philosophy in that it deals with dreams and depth psychology. The most famous Surrealists were the French artist Max Ernst (1891-1976), who came to the United States in the 1940s, and Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989), who also worked in California, New York, and other parts of the U.S. Others American artists who created Surrealist works were Armenian American Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) and Man Ray.
European Cubism had a strong impact on the artistic evolution of a key group of American artists working in the period from 1909-1936. Cubism left few modernist styles untouched and permeated the intellectual debate and the popular culture of this country. It was, as the critic Henry McBride proclaimed in 1914, “the movement of the dayand still moving.” A notable Cubist is New York artist Max Weber (1881-1961) who created the early Cubist 1913 masterpiece, ‘Woman in Tents’. Weber, who was present in Paris at the dawn of Cubism, played a critical role in the early dissemination of knowledge of European Cubism in the United States. Over the course of his early career he created among the most inventive and significant examples of Cubism by any American modernist.
Another Cubist is Pennsylvania artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) who in his 1919 painting Sail: In Two Movements used nature as a point of departure for his Cubist investigation of form and structure. Maine artist Marsden Hartley’s (1877-1943) ‘Provincetown’ of 1916-1917, is a distinctive painting which announces the profound impact of collage and other elements of Synthetic Cubism on Hartley’s evolving aesthetic. Morton Schamberg (1881-1918) and Joseph Stella created other Cubist imagery, which reveal the ‘new realities’ of the industrial landscape and the machine age. American artists discovered new and different directions for the development of Cubism, in many instances pushing beyond the parameters established by their European counterparts.
If the Dadaists responded to industrial technology with subversive playfulness, then it might be said that the work of artists like Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Charles Demuth was about using ‘the machine’ to restore a ‘classical’ sense of order. Drawing on technology as both metaphor and subject, they rendered images of factories, warehouses, bridges and other works of industrial architecture in a flat, mechanical style with little evidence of expressive gesture. Sheeler called it Precisionism, and its resemblance to photo-realism was no coincidence. He was a photographer as well as a painter, and the two media were in constant dialogue in his work.
People and nature are virtually absent from paintings like Sheeler’s ‘American Landscape’ (1930), except when needed for scale. In their place are manmade structures, cool, static, devoid of sentiment. Sheeler once declared “Our factories are our substitute for religious expression”. Although Precisionism never coalesced into a formal movement, the style reverberated through the work of painters Elsie Driggs (1898-1992), Russian-American Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) and Ralston Crawford (1906-1978).
With the outbreak of World War II, the influence of Paris on modern art declined, to the benefit of New York City. Long absent Americans in Paris returned home, and with them came an influx of European artists. “The probability is that the future of painting lies in America” art dealer Sam Kootz wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1941, “and all you have to do is get a new approach.” The ‘new approach’ that Kootz was looking for was already taking shape among a loose affiliation of painters in Greenwich Village. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, however, that they were given a name the Abstract Expressionists, or, more generally, the New York School. Although many had apprenticed under the WPA in the 1930s, they rejected Regionalism and Social Realism, which they regarded as provincial and tainted by nationalistic overtones. Nor were they satisfied with geometric abstraction, which they felt was academic and emotionally detached. They wanted a mode of expression that sprang from the most elemental urges and emotions-anxiety, terror, rage, ecstasy. They were deeply influenced in this regard by Surrealist painters like Andre Masson (1896-1987) who had fled to New York at the start of the war. Taking cue from the émigrés were painters such as William Baziotes (1912-1963), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), and Latvian American Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Most famous of the Abstract Expressionists was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). With the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s, the United States, particularly New York City, became the world center for the creation of ‘progressive art’, and former critics began to accept the validity of American Modernism.
The American Scene (Regionalists and Social Realists)
Disillusioned by the failure of industrialism, many artists searched for redemption in the values of common people and the routines of everyday life. Known as the American Scene, the movement focused on rural tableaus evoking the virtues of family, hard work and individuality. The term refers to a general trend in American painting between the world wars, in the 1920s-1930s, not an organized movement.
Considered as American Scene painters are Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Japanese American Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Grant Wood (1892-1942), and Andrew Wyeth (1917- ). Rejecting European modernism and abstraction, American Scene Painters wanted to create a largely realistic style in the depiction of subjects and scenes related to American life. Two main groups emerged: Regionalists, who painted mostly scenes of Midwestern and Southern life and history, and the mostly New York, urban Social Realists. Edward Hopper is one of the few artists who can be connected with either group.
American Scene subjects were taken from American history or contemporary America, portraits, landscapes, etc. Social Realists concentrated on urban, city scenes. The style was Realistic. Among the influences on the American Scene painters were the Ash Can School, late medieval style, 16th century Italian Mannerist style, and 19th century Realism.
One pivotal Social Realist figure was Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952), a painter who depicted shoppers, usually sturdy middle class matrons- around his New York studio. One of Miller’s best-known students, Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), once complained that the people his mentor encouraged him to paint were ugly. Millers’ reply: ‘They are ugly; they are people. Buy a pair of field glasses.” It was a lesson Marsh took to heart. His pictures are detailed visions of urban life -teeming with bums, strutting gigolos, and blonde bombshells in a restless, jitterbug style. Another of Miller’s students, Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), took a more empathetic approach, catching neighborhood students and shop girls in moments of quiet rapport. Her subjects appear relaxed, many in motion, perhaps between home and office.
No one captured the loneliness and desolation of city life more poignantly than Edward Hopper (1882-1967). A student of Ashcan painter Robert Henri (1865-1929), Hopper imbued his work with a profound sense of melancholy and loss. His figures are often depicted alone, -passive, dejected, bored, or, if shown together, strangely disengaged, unable to connect or communicate. He gained widespread recognition as a central exponent of American Scene painting, expressing the loneliness, vacuity, and stagnation of town life. Yet Hopper remained always an individualist: `I don't think I ever tried to paint the American scene; I'm trying to paint myself.'
A movement that began in Britain and the United States in the 1950s, Pop Art used the images and techniques of mass media, advertising, and popular culture, often in an ironic way. Works of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), and Swedish-American Claes Oldenburg (1929-) and James Rosenquist (1933-) exemplify this style. The materials and techniques long used by abstract, or action, painters acrylic paints, stencils, silk screens, spray guns were applied to figurative uses by pop artists. They emphasized contemporary social values: the sprawl of urban life, the transitory, the vulgar, the superficial, and the flashy the very opposites of the values cherished by artists of the past. Seeking cultural resources, pop artists reworked such industrial products as soup and beer cans, American flags, and automobile wrecks. They turned images of hot dogs and hamburgers into gigantic blowups or outsize vinyl monsters. Advertising provided numerous starting points, especially in product labels, posters, and billboards. Pop art is indebted to Dada, particularly the collages of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, and the female nudes of abstract expressionist Dutch American Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Most prevalent in the United States and the United Kingdom, pop artists appeared in all highly industrialized countries, notably in France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.
Constructivism was a Russian abstract movement founded by Russians Vladimar Tatlin (1885-1953), Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962), and Russian American Naum Gabo (1890-1977), around 1915. Influenced by Picasso’s constructions and by Cubism, it focused on art for the industrial age. Constructivists viewed art as a scientific activity with utilitarian purpose, an exploration of line, color, surface, and construction, and sought to apply their ideas to political and social issues.
Constructivists rejected conventional easel painting in favor of utilitarian designs for mass production (art applied to social and industrial needs). Some works are non-representational, while others are functional. Subjects included abstract assemblages of industrial metal, plastic, glass, and wire, and were among the first total abstractions in the history of sculpture. Other constructions were prototypes for architectural, stage, or industrial designs. Constructivism had influence on The Bauhaus, De Stijl and Minimalism.
A movement in American painting and sculpture that originated in the late 1950s, minimalism emphasized pure, reduced forms and strict, systematic compositions. Minimalism is a style of art in which objects are stripped down to their elemental, geometric form, and presented in an impersonal manner. It is an Abstract form of art that developed as a reaction against the subjective elements of Abstract Expressionism.
Minimalist art frequently takes the form of ‘installations’ or sculpture, for example with Donald Judd (1928-1994), Dan Flavin (1933-1996), Carl Andre (1935-) and Sol LeWitt (1928-). However, there are also a number of minimalist painters, including Ellsworth Kelly (1923-) and Frank Stella (1936-).
Founded in Italy in 1909, by Umberto Bocciaoni (1882-1916), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Carlo Carra (1881-1966) and Gino Severini (1883-1966), the Futurist movement involved all of the arts and celebrated modern technology and the world of the future without boundaries.
“Nationalism was quite unknown to us, and we were all friends, each ready to recommend the others to the few gallery owners, collectors and critics likely to be interested in our work. After the First World War, we found ourselves committed in each country to an absurd patriotism. It had become unpatriotic for a Paris painter, even if he were foreign-born, to know anything about contemporary German art or to praise an Italian artist. Overnight, Picasso seemed to have forgotten all about Kandinsky, Chagall behaved as if he had never heard of Larionov, and only a few personal friends of mine in Paris could remember any of my pictures.”
- Carlo Carrà, 1959, quoted by Edouard Roditi
It attempted to integrate the dynamism of the machine age into art. Futurist works emphasized motion and velocity, transforming the fragmented forms of cubism into sharp, angular facets that embodied speeding movement through space and time. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) who emigrated from Italy to New York, is noted for some of his futurist works.