Modernism Summary

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 Realism 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).


History | Return to Top

Until the first decade of the 20th century, art, whether drawing, painting, or sculpture, was always essentially pictorial, and was based on themes and compositions representing real world ideas. With the emergence of a new ‘Modernist’ thinking, and with an ever-increasing use of machines in industry and daily life, artists sought new ways to interpret the dynamic changes taking place around them. Modernist art imagery first developed in Europe between 1905 and 1920 on several fronts under a number of names, such as Fauvism, Cubism, German Expressionism, Constructivism, de Stijl, Dadaism and Surrealism. American artists studied these new styles and ‘isms’ in Europe and brought them back to the United States. Simultaneously, European artists immigrated to the United States bringing Modernist concepts with them.

As an art historical term, modern refers to a period dating from roughly the 1860s through the 1970s and is used to describe the style as well as the ideology of art produced during that era. Beginning in the 1860s, many artists cast aside the traditional limitations of art and began to depict contemporary life through experimental forms and new media. These new attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the time that seemed to question the solidity of the ‘real’ world and the reliability of perception. Darwin, Freud and quantum physics had undercut the certainties of the 19th century. Understanding ‘reality’ became a far more slippery prospect than it was a generation earlier, and modernists reacted by abandoning intellect for intuition and depicting the world, as they perceived it behind the veil of physical appearance. Part of this progressive Modernist perspective had also resulted from the decreasing number of commissioned paintings by society's elite. These decreases in commissions allowed the development of Modernism because artists were freer to explore their creativity.

The term modernism is used to refer to the art of this ‘modern period’. More specifically, modernism can be thought of as referring to the ‘philosophy’ of ‘modern art’. It is generally acknowledged that Modernism in America did not really have a ‘mainstream’, but rather was a multiplicity of ‘isms’ that embraced a fairly wide variety of styles and expressions originating in different parts of the country. ‘Isms’ such as Post-Impresionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and later Dadaism and Futurism all had somewhat porous boundaries. What tied them together was a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art. Some of the many early American Modernists involved in this new era of experimentation were Robert F. Blum (1857-1903), Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John LaFarge (1870_1953), John Marin (1870-1953), Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965).

Early Modernists | Return to Top

Most art historians agree that the French artist Edouard Manet (1832-1883) is the first Modernist painter, and that Modernism in art originated in the 1860s. Paintings such as his ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’ are seen to have ushered in a new era, among the reasons being that its daring subject, a nude woman picnicking with a group of men attired in suits, was so startling. Considered by many to be the first American artist to incorporate European modernist ideas, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932) was influential in introducing the innovations of French artist Henri Matisse, Spaniard Pablo Picasso, and other members of the avant-garde to American painters and sculptors. The avant-garde (a military term meaning "advance-guard") artist, in contrast to those who looked to the past and tradition, consciously rejected tradition. Maurer was deeply influenced by the bold, expressive colors of Matisse and the Fauvists. He later adopted a Cubist style. Some of his strongest images are portraits, usually of two or more people with merged facial features. Maurer never achieved critical or commercial success and killed himself in 1932 after the death of his father, a Currier and Ives illustrator who despised modern art.

Another early leader was Canadian American Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) who led the way, with his emphasis on color and pattern, to the early American modernists. Prendergast’s style is distinguished by its vivid palette and mosaic brushwork, signaling a growing interest in French contemporaries –Cezanne, Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard- whose work he studied in Paris during the 1890s. Like his French contemporaries, Prendergast was as interested in patterns as subject matter. Although he exhibited with ‘The Eight’, his work stands apart from their dark depictions of urban existence. Prendergast and those sharing his interests used color to revealed personal reactions to subject. While generally topical, images were often fragmented and rearranged to express emotional states, motion, or speed. These concerns can be related to the American modernists that emerged contemporaneously and flourished thereafter. Highly conceptual early 20th century modernists, such as Polish American Max Weber (1881-1961), Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), Alfred H. Maurer (1868-1932), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Arthur Dove (1880-1946), Italian American Joseph Stella (1877-1946), and Charles Demuth (1883-1935), laid a foundation for complete abstraction.

The Effect of World War I, and a Rejection of Existing Standards | Return to Top

Modernism in visual arts, music, literature, and drama rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War I period. The ordered, stable and inherently ‘meaningful’ worldview of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."

Around 1910, just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life, and Einstein's ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of some of the above-mentioned new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the many banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Matisse and Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.

The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war's end in 1918, the centuries old European domination of the world had ended, and the "American Century" had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.

American artists were, at first, hostile to European art forms, but particularly after a large and now famous exhibit, The Armory Show, in February 1913 at the Armory of the Infantry in New York City, American artists opened up to new styles and techniques. Free of restraint, they created a variety of idealistic new styles over the next century, including such approaches as Constructivism, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Minimalism.

The Modernist seed was nourished in coming years by the flood of European artists that came to the United States at the onset of World War I. Following the war, fatigued by its horrors, artists and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic looked to the New World for fresh ideas and inspiration. What attracted them was the vibrancy of American society –its industry and technology, jazzy music, and glamorous movies. For example, to Joseph Stella, a Southern Italian immigrant, the Brooklyn Bridge ‘was a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America. He painted the bridge many times, but perhaps never more exuberantly than in The Brooklyn Bridge (The Bridge), the final canvas in a five-panel tribute to his adopted city of New York. It’s no accident that the work is presented in a format typical of Italian altarpieces, or that its luminous colors recall stained-glass windows. To him, technology was a new religion, the bridge a sacred icon.

De Stijl | Return to Top
Red, yellow and blue rectangles and squares contained by thick black lines, or on a distinctly white background, is De Stijl, as many know it. The De Stijl art movement of 1917 to 1931 included paintings, architecture, furniture, and graphic design, and was based on the idea, or rather the principle, of absolute abstraction, the elimination of all representational images, to be replaced by straight lines, right angles, and the three primary colors. As the movement developed, it became not just a style but also a lifestyle. At the center of the founding of De Stijl in 1917 were its driving force, Theo van Doesburg, three painters (Piet Mondrian, Bart Van der Leck, and Vilmos Huszar), three architects (Jan Wils, Robert van’t Hoff and Gerrit Rietveld), a sculptor (Georges Vantongerloo), and poet Antony Kok. Most signed their names to a manifesto called "The Style,” (1918) as proof that they had one dream, one belief and one goal and they were ready to present their worldly solution to post world chaos, which would enable mankind to develop a controllable lifestyle in a post-war world. This lifestyle was De Stijl. Based in the Netherlands, De Stijl art was first influenced by its surrounding landscape. The Dutch landscape with its perfectly rectangular fields and straight roads and canals directly influenced the De Stijl group into sharing the same goal: human control over the forces of nature. Just like the Dutch landscape, De Stijl art strove to show control and order in a world driven by the hatred and disruption of war on the outside, rather than focused from the harmony within our own selves. De Stijl also influenced such movements as International Modern Style and Cubism and has been said to have “pushed cubism to a pure geometric art”

Post-Impressionism | Return to Top
Postimpressionism is a term coined by British art critic Roger Fry to refer to a group of nineteenth-century painters, including Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, who were dissatisfied with the limitations of expressionism. It has since been used to refer to various reactions against impressionism, such as Fauvism and Expressionism. Post-Impressionism was an important experimental link in the chain of modern art leading from Impressionism to later styles, including Fauvism and Cubism. In European art it denotes the style of a number of otherwise unrelated artists working between 1880 and 1906. They were concerned with Impressionism's dissolution of form and attempted, through further experiments, to reinvest substance and meaning into painting. The form of these experiments varied with the goals of the individual artists. Subjectivity and pictorial surface were emphasized at the expense of illusion, for Impressionism had demonstrated that realistic representation of nature was no longer a necessary or sufficient goal in a painting. Some artists attempted to reinvest meaning by using more intense, brighter or more contrasting colors, as well as outline. They also experimented with the psychological properties of impasto and brushwork. Subject matter changed from Impressionism's sunny, positive landscapes and its interest in portraying the upper classes at leisure to, if not social protest, at least the presentation of the common man. Sometimes esoteric, historical, mystical or religious imagery was incorporated. Artists turned from plein air painting, made popular by the Impressionists, back to working in the studio.

America had relatively few significant Post-Impressionists. Unlike the equally revolutionary style of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism's negative, unattractive or esoteric subject matter did not elicit the patronage of collectors, and its subjectivity and experimental nature didn’t appeal to large numbers of artists.

If Post-Impressionism means experimentation beyond Impressionism, then some of its earliest experimenters and practitioners may be found in the Art Students' League of Los Angeles. Early cityscapes by Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973) painted in bright, bold colors. Val Costello's (1875-1937) landscapes and blurred figure studies, as well as Rex Slinkard's (1887-1918) softly toned, broadly handled figural subjects might be considered post-impressionistic. Clarence Hinkle is quite decidedly a Post-Impressionist. Other Southern California artists who qualify as Post-Impressionists formed the first group titled "modernists." Arriving in the mid-1920's, they had an interest in bright colors or treating solid forms on a two-dimensional surface. Among these artists are Henrietta Shore (1880-1963), Helena Dunlap, Meta Cressey (1882-1964) and Edouard Vysekal (1890-1939). Cressey's Toys at Rest, (private collection), c. 1918, is a prime example of the return to substantive form and color. Conrad Buff (1886-1975), who constructed massive three-dimensional geographic features with pin-like strokes, has much in common with French Post-Impressionists such as Seurat.

Fauvism | Return to Top
Fauvism (French Fauvisme) was a style of painting that flourished in France from 1898 to 1908 and used pure, brilliant color, applied straight from the paint tubes in an aggressive, direct manner to create a sense of an explosion on the canvas. The Fauves painted directly from nature as the Impressionists had before them, but their works were invested with a strong expressive reaction to the subjects they painted. First formally exhibited in Paris in 1905, Fauvist paintings shocked visitors to the Salon d'Automne, an annual show that had been controversial at its start because there already existed many traditional art exhibitions, but later it was to become very fashionable. One of these visitors was the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who, because of the violence of their works, dubbed the painters "Les Fauves" (Wild Beasts). The leader of the group was Henri Matisse. Not to be confused with parallel art movements such as Post-Impressionism, German Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism, the salient tenets that engender Fauvism are the construction of space with bright color, vigorous brushwork, planar configurations, and the simplification of form.

The first important American artist to be directly involved in the Salon d'Automne of 1905 was Alfred H. Maurer (1868-1932), a frequent visitor to the Gertrude and Leo Stein household in Paris. His extraordinary "Fauve Nude" was executed in 1906 shortly after the revolutionary 1905 Salon. This female nude with its brilliant coloration and slashing brushwork is typical of the Fauves and is reminiscent in its painterly handling to Matisse's "Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line)" created in 1905. "Fauve Nude" is a pivotal work for Maurer as it reveals the artist's unequivocal abandonment of his earlier style of painting in the vein of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) for the expressiveness of Matisse. The work is significant as an example of one of the first American artists to effect drastic change in his aesthetic as a result of head-on exposure to Matisse's art.

Morgan Russell (1886-1953) met Leo and Gertrude Stein in 1908 on his second trip to Paris and through them he was introduced to Matisse. Another American Fauvist was Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) who depicted the countryside around Doylestown, Penn., where the artist spent weekends in a farmhouse retreat shared with fellow avant-garde painter Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918). The vivid impastoed paint of one of his expressive landscapes secured its inclusion in the Armory Show of 1913.

Expatriate painter Anne Estelle Rice arrived in Paris in 1905, and quickly synthesized a Fauve-related variant into her pictures. Rice's interest in Fauve painter Andre Derain is exemplified in the work entitled "Ajaccio, Corse."

Dadaism | Return to Top
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 (1925-2008). 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.

Orphism | Return to Top
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).

Surrealism | Return to Top
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, and Belgian artist Rene Magritte. Others American artists who created Surrealist works were Armenian American Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) and Man Ray.

Cubism | Return to Top
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 day––and 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.

Precisionism | Return to Top
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).

Abstract Expressionism | Return to Top
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) | Return to Top
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.

Artists considered to be 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 (1917-2009). 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.'

Pop Art | Return to Top
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 | Return to Top
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.

Minimalism | Return to Top
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 (1928-2007). However, there are also a number of minimalist painters, including Ellsworth Kelly (1923-) and Frank Stella (1936-).

Futurism | Return to Top
Founded in Italy in 1909, by Umberto Boccioni (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.

Early American Modernists | Return to Top
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 days of World War I.

Alfred Stieglitz and “291” | Return to Top
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 | Return to Top
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 | Return to Top
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 I 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 | Return to Top
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 | Return to Top
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 | Return to Top
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;
The Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery of Nebraska; to
Grace Glueck, author of ‘What Modernism Meant in Black Artists’ World’, (NY Times Feb 7, 2003); 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.