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Early American Modernists
The American modernist movement, roughly 1910-1950, was a fast-moving and multi-dimensional period in American art history. It was a period when some might say the United States progressed from an artistic backwater to the forefront of the world art scene. Through much of this period Modernism in America was eclipsed, however, by more conservative, realistic art forms.

Early American modernists such as New York artists Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) and abstract botanics painter Arthur Dove (1880-1946), the above mentioned Marsden Hartley, and New Mexico artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) were all successors to a nineteenth-century American romanticism inherited from such artists as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and Ralph A. Blakelock (1847-1919). Each looked to nature for their inspiration. These independent artists transformed landscape motifs with their own deeply personal vision, which did not comply with the traditional artistic portrayals of their time. They believed in the value of direct observation from nature and emphasized an American expression rooted in their immediate environment as can be seen, for instance, in Hartley’s and O’Keeffe’s bold landscapes of the American Southwest, Dove’s energetic waterscapes of Long Island Sound, and Dickinson’s moody Cape Cod seascapes. One might say that these artists were joined not by a painting style, but by a mental attitude towards their work. Dove was fascinated by synesthesia –the experience of color as sound- and the viewer can almost hear bass tones resonating through sea air in his painting ‘Fog Horns’ (1929).

The importance of artists’ colonies for the development of some modernist art has also been acknowledged. Painters like O’Keeffe, Dove, John Marin (1870-1953), and Dickinson preferred remoteness and solitude in order to think and immerse themselves in nature and, in some cases, chose to live in close proximity to "naive" cultures with strong traditional ties to the natural world, such as in the indigenous Indian culture. Demuth went to Provincetown, a small fishing village located on the outer tip of Cape Cod that was largely peopled by Portuguese fishermen and their families, who still kept their cultural traditions and native language. Hartley also traveled to Paris and then Berlin where he was smitten with the city’s homosexual subculture and pre-war pageantry. He developed a collage-like style evident in such painting as ‘Portrait of a German Officer’ (1914) in which he assembled images of military insignia, banners and uniforms to memorialize his lover, a German officer killed in the early day s of World War I.

Alfred Stieglitz and “291”
Some of the earliest Americans to embrace Modernism were promoted by photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Born in New Jersey of German-Jewish parents, Stieglitz grew up in New York City. Shaping the New York art world and contributing to the rise of avant-garde culture in the era before the Depression, Stieglitz is without a doubt one of the most important single figures in the development of Modernism in America. The ‘Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession’, better known as ‘291’ because of its Fifth Avenue address in New York, became a central gathering place for some of the most significant names of the American avant-garde. They looked upon ‘291’ as a safe harbor amidst a sea of anti-modernist hostility in the visual arts.

Because art galleries had generally rejected photography, Stieglitz envisioned a space in which photography could be measured in juxtaposition to other media. From this combination of his passionate spirit with specific knowledge of the aesthetic revolutions of his time, he gained the power to change the course of American art and taste. He believed that art transcended national boundaries, and was eager to fling open the doors of American culture to foreign influences, particularly those of the modern artists of the Paris salons. It was this role as a bridge to the European modernists that made Stieglitz a pivotal figure in the history of American art in the 20th century.

With the help of fellow photographer Edward Steichen, Stieglitz created a stronghold of modern art at ‘291’. In 1908 he opened his first modern art exhibit featuring the works of European modernist artists such as Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, artists who were virtually ignored by every other gallery or art organization in the United States. He also exhibited American artists, Max Weber, John Marin, Arthur G. Dove and many others. Few painters exerted more influence on Stieglitz during 291’s early years than Max Weber, who lived in a small room behind the gallery in 1910 after returning from Paris. Weber was responsible for enlightening Stieglitz on a variety of topics, including the importance of Paul Cezanne, whose work Stieglitz exhibited the following year.

These exhibitions had the effect of helping shape the styles of the major painters working around Stieglitz, providing examples for those unable to view these works in Europe. John Marin’s Cubist-inspired views of New York City and the boldly colored Matisse-like forms of Alfred Maurer’s still lifes are examples of such influence. Even more significant, these exhibitions anticipated the Armory Show in 1913, which first exposed large numbers of Americans, including artists, to the artistic actions taking place in Europe.

Nearly every American artist who had been or wished to be exposed to modern European art was attracted to ‘291’. It became a forum wherein both young avant-garde artists and critics could find encouragement and opportunities for discussion that was, at the time, unavailable elsewhere.

Another link between many of the artists of the Stieglitz circle, which might partially explain shared concerns, is the similarity of their artistic education. Many of this generation of artists, including Hartley, Marin, Alfred H. Maurer, O’Keeffe, Sheeler, and Edwin Dickinson, were trained by William Merritt Chase, who had himself been instructed at the Royal Academy in Munich. As William H. Gerdts has stated, during the period of Chase’s studies there, the modernist concept of “the primacy of method and technique over subject matter began to be stressed” at Munich’s Royal Academy over traditional approaches to art, and Church likely shared these views with his own students. He encouraged his students to experiment and to approach nature from new vantage points, offering prizes for the most imaginative compositions. O’Keeffe, for example, became well known for her sensuous close-ups of flowers, and also painted cityscapes, repeatedly painting the view from the Shelton Hotel apartment she shared with Stieglitz.

Stieglitz was instrumental in laying the groundwork for modern art in New York, but even his efforts were dwarfed by the power of a single event, the Armory Show of 1913. For the show, nearly 1,300 works were amassed, about two-thirds Americans, covering styles ranging from Ashcan to French Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist. Huge criticism resulted, particularly for the European modernists, but the louder the critics protested, the more curious the public became. After four weeks, more than 75,000 people had attended in New York and thousands more saw it in Boston and Chicago. But an entire generation of artists, collectors and critics had been given a glimpse of the future. The Modernist seed had been planted.

Abstraction as a path to other realms
Some artists were interested in the spiritual and believed that art should serve as a guide to the spiritual dimension which they and others felt was being lost in the increasingly materialist contemporary world. For some, abstraction was a path to another goal. For example, Mark Rothco could be considered a spiritual abstractionist. Abstraction involved a sort of stripping away of the material world and had the potential of revealing, or describing, or merely alluding to the world of the spirit.

With the rise of abstraction in the twentieth century, experimentation with line, shape, and color particularly changed artistic presentations of portrait sitters. Arshile Gorky's ‘The Artist and His Mother’ shows the influence of abstract modernist trends from Europe, including Cubism and Expressionism. As another example, Walt Kuhn's (1877-1949) ‘Wisconsin’, painted during the Depression, is a portrait of an era more than an individual, as James McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1903) famous side view of his mother, ‘A Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, is more about pattern than a person.

Modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, and Political Views
In the evolution of the ideas and concepts of Modernism, the 1930s and 1940s stand out as being a particularly progressive period. Artists were moving away from nature as a basis for subject matter and relying on spiritual, sub-conscious and metaphysical sources for creativity. Because of their avant garde concepts, these artists were working on the fringe of acceptability. During these two decades some of the most advanced modernist work was created.

Between World War One and World War II, progressive modernism continued to pursue its goals, but now often in association with other forces. Progressive artists actively supported political revolution. Today, we would characterize progressive modernism, the avant-garde, as left leaning and liberal in its support of freedom of expression and demands of equality. Pablo Picasso, for example, joined the Communist party in 1944, as did many other artists. The Russian Revolution seemed at the time, and for a long time after, to be the answer to the progressive modernist's dream. Marxist communism was the boldest attempt to create a better society, adopting not a political democracy like the United States, but an economic democracy wherein all were economically equal.

The ideas of Karl Marx infused the Surrealist movement, which saw itself as promoting, in the words of Salvador Dali, “a revolution in consciousness." Communism offered the vision of universal freedom predicated on freedom of ideas. Progressive modernist artists in the imaginative freedom of their works exemplified or encouraged this freedom. Under Joseph Stalin, however, this freedom was sharply curtailed. Modernism persisted, but in a state-manipulated controlled form. This same form, generally called Social Realism also flourished at the other end of the political spectrum in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Social Realism
For many artists, it wasn’t enough to merely observe society. They wanted to use their work as an instrument of social change. “Yes, paint America, but with your eyes open”, said Moses Soyer (1899-1974) “Do not glorify Main Street. Paint it as it is –mean, dirty, and avaricious”. Soyer was a Social Realist, like brothers Isaac and Raphael and as such others as Lithuanian American Ben Shahn (1898-1969), and Philip Evergood (1901-1973). Associated with radical left-wing journals like the New Masses, these artists addressed issues of racial injustice, chronic poverty, lynching and work’s rights. George Luks (1867-1933) and Walter Ufer (1876-1936) are associated with Social Realism, and Ufer sponsored a visit by Trotsky to New Mexico. The Communist sympathies of some Social Realists roused the government’s suspicion and put them in direct opposition to American Scene painters like Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), who worked in the Midwest and largely depicted rural life. Benton had spent more than 20 years in New York before returning to Missouri in 1935 angry about what he regarded as the moral bankruptcy of the urban art scene.

Modernism in Black Artists’ World
Disparate elements played a role in the shaping of 20th century aesthetics in the African-American visual, literary and performing arts at the same time that Modernism was establishing itself in white American culture. Modernism for African-American artists, still outsiders in the white milieu, was something else: a ‘multifaceted phenomenon’ states Lowery Stokes Sims, formerly the curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY.

Among the elements involved in this ‘multifaceted phenomenon’ were the country’s somewhat belated engagement with African art; the image of the ‘New Negro’ whose militant behavior broke from conformity; the ‘black body’, which exemplified African-Americans as dancers, athletes, performers, musicians, and ‘evokers of erotic desire’ with idols such as Josephine Baker and Joe Louis; and the revised black self-imagery that resulted from the migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North between 1913 and 1946. Other issues considered in African-American artworks include the black church and its influence, the question of primitivism, and African roots versus the desire for assimilation into the American artistic mainstream.

Like other modernists, contemporary Black American artists deployed abstract styles, mixed media, and political commentary. Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978), the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, was an activist for modernist art.

Although Modernist genres like abstraction were grounded in African art, many black artists struggled with the issue of how to fulfill expectations of the larger white society, and at the same time the black community’s yearning for recognition and identity. Artists such as Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Norman Lewis (1909-1979), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), and William H. Johnson (1901-1970) are among the many that deal with these issues of cultural heritage and racial identity.

The End of Modernism
In the latter half of the 20th century there has been mounting evidence of the failure of the Modernist enterprise. Many late Modernist American artists perceived, with exceptions, a ‘provincial’ quality to American art of the past. However, the conventional view of American art as the poor cousin of European art before 1945 has been changed. If Modernism is to be considered at an end, we are now facing a fascinating new period to explore, -Postmodernism.

Compiled By Teta Collins

Credit for much of the above information is given to Dr. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, Professor of Art History, Sweet Briar College; to the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery of Nebraska; to Grace Glueck, author of ‘What Modernism Meant in Black Artists’ World’, (NY Times Feb 7, 2003); and to Mary Ellen Abell, author of ‘Subjectivist Tendencies in Early Modernist American Art: The Case of Edwin Walter Dickinson’; and to Insight Guides: ‘Museums and Galleries of New York City’; and to Nancy Dustin Wall Moure’s essay ‘Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California’, from the book Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, by Ruth Lilly Westphal.

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