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Defining modernism in American art is a slippery task. As an art historical term, ‘modern’ refers to a period dating roughly from the 1860s through 1970 and to the style as well as the ideology of art produced during that era. Modernism was not a cohesive movement, but rather a multiplicity of ‘isms’ such as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and later Dadaism and Futurism, among others, -each with porous boundaries and a shifting roster of acolytes. What tied modernist artists together was a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art. They ditched the old rules of perspective, color, and composition in order to work out their own visions. Their attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the day that seemed to question the solidity of the ‘real’ world and the reliability of perception. ‘Reality’-whatever that was- became a far more slippery prospect than it had been a generation earlier. Modernists reacted by abandoning intellect for intuition and depicting the world as they perceived it behind the veils of physical appearance.
In addition to art, ‘Modernism’ refers to a wide range of subjects such as music, religion, and architecture, and generally relates to the changing nature of society during this period. Among those changes were: greater influence of machines; faster travel; increased wealth of individuals; greater individual freedoms; individuality of the creative ideas of artists, designers and architects; increased consumerism; new discoveries and inventions; and a sense of shaking off past influences and traditions and the beginning of a new 'modern' world.
American Modernists represented a wide range of personal vision. There were painters such as Alfred Maurer (1868-1932), and John Marin (1870-1953), both deeply influenced by the bold, expressive colors of Matisse and the Fauvists. Another was Max Weber (1881-1961), who was greatly influenced by Paul Cezanne. Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) developed a collage-like style. Others, such as Arthur Dove (1880-1946) and Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) sought inspiration in the natural landscape. Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) emphasized color and pattern.
The event that was truly a catalyst for the growth of American Modernism was the Armory Show of 1913 in New York. This landmark event presented nearly 1,300 works representing 300 artists, about two thirds Americans, covering styles ranging from Ashcan to French Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist. More than 75,000 people attended, and an entire generation of artists, collectors and critics were given a glimpse of the future. The Modernist seed had been planted in American soil and would be nourished in coming years by the flood of European artists who moved to this country at the onset of World War I. Immigrants such as Italian Joseph Stella (1936- 1946) were smitten by this country and its industrial prowess. Emigres’ Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) were central in the Dada movement and viewed technology as a key metaphor of modern society.
Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was one of the many awakened to Modernism at the Armory Show. A student of Robert Henri (1865-1929), Davis painted the seepage of consumer culture into American life. Some, such as Joseph Stella, responded to industrial technology with feelings of awe, while others, such as Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Charles Demuth (1883-1935), used the machine to restore a classical sense of order in their works, rendering images of factories, and warehouses in a mechanical style with little expressive gesture. Sheeler called this Precisionism.
Some artists raised concerns about the dehumanization of life in congested industrial cities. No one captures this loneliness more poignantly than Edward Hopper (1882-1967), also a student of Robert Henri. Disillusioned by industrialism, they sought for answers in the values of common people and the routines of everyday life. Known as American Scene painters, many focused on rural tableaus, for example Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) who worked in the Midwest. Other American Scene painters dedicated themselves to urban life, for example Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952), who depicted middle class matrons shopping. Merely observing was not enough for Social Realist painters who wanted to use their work as an instrument of social change. Among these were Moses Soyer (1899-1974), Ben Shahn (1898-1969) and Philip Evergood (1901-1973).
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Compiled by Teta Collins, with credit given to those at end of the following essay.