Modernism in New York City, 1920s

AMERICAN MODERNISM

The New York Artists in the 1920s

As an avant-garde entrepreneur and increasingly experimental artist, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) had a gift for gab and a penchant for younger followers. By the beginning of the Great War, the photographer had surrounded himself with up and coming American artists. Stieglitz made his mark in the small art world of New York City as a promoter of art photography and “straight photography,” and as the presiding spirit in his famous 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Here New Yorkers could see the first American exhibitions of Rodin, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Matisse, Picasso, and Rousseau got their first one-person shows in America at the 291.

The introduction of the European avant-garde paved the way for a new generation of American artists to break away from the lingering realism of the Ash Can School. In contrast to American expatriate artists, such as Patrick Bruce, Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, most of the American artists of New York modernism were homegrown products. Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, John Marin, and Charles Demuth were painter who combined the suggestions of Cubism with the pragmatism of the American tradition of realism. Marsden Hartley had a European based career until the start of the Great War forced him to leave his German lover behind and return to America. Hartley’s art was a combination of Cubism and Expressionism, but the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe were free of European influences.

Under the guidance of Stieglitz, these artists were able to have careers in a territory hostile to avant-garde art—indeed, Stieglitz, his gallery and his influence, were virtually the only game in town for an ambitious American artist. The American Modernists were aware of avant-garde European art–more than most American artists–and yet their art stayed in the conservative vein of a precise and stylized realism based upon American subject matter. Even the most radical of the Modernists, Stuart Davis (1892-1964), looked back on the assimilation, mockingly called one of his paintings, Colonial Cubism of 1954.

After the Armory Show in 1913, it was clear that Americans could deal with European Modernism only in a diluted fashion. Clearly, the nation was not ready for Marcel Duchamp, but there was an art audience for American subject matter slightly radicalized by a nod to Cubism. Charles Sheeler’s (1883-1965) precise paintings (Americana, 1931) and radically abstract photographs of early American architecture (Doylestown House—The Stove, 1917) combined with local and the historical with a stylized depiction inspired by de-centered perspectives from European painting.

Charles Demuth (1883-1936) painted American industry shot through with Cubist fractures that did not disrupt the image. My Egypt (1927) shows a fully assimilated understanding of the look of Futurist lines of force, of the shooting diagonals of Rayonism, but he seemed to understand little of the concepts behind the device of the dynamic line. I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928) was a nod to the Synthetic period of Picasso’s Cubism combined with Futurist motion. Demuth did not embrace the theoretical thinking but manipulated the aesthetic or the appearance of the European avant-garde.

Demuth’s approach is very similar to that of Gerald Murphy (1888-1964), a painter more respected in Europe than in New York. Murphy, an international sophisticate, was admired by the Europeans for his uniquely “American” subject matter. Only seven of Murphy’s fourteen paintings are extant and Razor (1924) and Watch (1925) are very close to the work of Fernand Léger during that decade. What Murphy offered the French was the modernism of a young and vigorous nation combined with the classical approach of the School of Paris. In comparison, Arthur Dove’s Goin’ Fishin’ of 1925 is a downright folksy response to collage. What these disparate artists have in common is the intention to produce “American” art to counter the dominance of the Europeans.

It would take the New Yorkers another three decades to produce a kind of “American” art that would eclipse European Modernism. But an important beachhead was established. America was considered the most advanced and modern nation. Greatly admired by Europeans, New York City was the model for the city of the future imagined by the German film director, Fritz Lang, in his groundbreaking science-fiction classic,Metropolis (1925). Far more than the art being produced in Europe, American art reflected the modernity of the nation and, indeed, of the century to come.

An example of Modernism in American, Precisionism, flourished in the 1920s and 30s, as a painterly counterpart of the New Vision photography of Paul Strand. Precisionism was a reductive and precise painting style. Often based upon a photographic original, these paintings eliminated all ancillary detail and abstracted a landscape or an object to a strong design. Ralston Crawford (1906-1976) (Overseas Highway, 1950) and Charles Sheeler (Church Street El, 1920) celebrated America’s factories and industrial might as their ancient ancestors had celebrated pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens. These Modernists are often looked upon as important precursors to American Pop Art in their preference for American popular subjects and American icons.

Of all the American Modernists who reacted to European avant-garde art, perhaps Joseph Stella’s (1877-1946) series on the Brooklyn Bridge, 1919-1920 was the closest to the Europeans. For him, this Bridge, built in 1883, embodied the “new civilization” that was American in all its “perpetual motion.” Stella’s fractured and fragmented Bridge is a superb example of late Salon Cubism, reminiscent of Albert Gleizes when he was waiting out the Great War in New York. During the 1920s Alfred Stiegltz and his group became a lively center of American intelligentsia and provided a counterpoint to a more underground avant-garde group, an outpost of radical European art called, New York Dada, presided over by Walter and Louise Arensberg.

In closing, the art of Georgia O’Keeffe is possibly American Modernism at its best. Stieglitz was very proud of the fact that she had not been impacted by European art and that her art was an unalloyed response to America. With his entrepreneurial handling, she became the most famous and highest priced artist in pre-World War II America. She was perhaps the best painter of the new skyscrapers in New York City, and her large flowers in close-up countered this “masculine” territory. With the exception of Marsden Hartley, O’Keeffe was the only one of the New Yorkers to attempt to represent the American West and to expand the definition of the content of “American” art. After the death of Stieglitz in 1946, O’Keeffe left the city of skyscrapers for good and moved to the land that had always enthralled her, the open land and the open skies, and spent the rest of her life in New Mexico.

Perhaps because of their Americanized approach to European Modernism, these artists were always popular and well respected by the American public in their time. However, the idea of what “American” art should be became more complex in the 1930s with the trend towards Social Realism and Regionalism. Turning away from this message art, the New York School of the 1950s took up an exhausted European Modernism and “Americanized” the old styles of Cubism and Surrealism by combining the geometric and biomorphic and enlarging the format to mural scale. Aside from the move to abstraction, the tactics of the new generation of the New York artists was similar to their precursors. After the Second World War, a new generation of artists and their promoters asserted themselves so aggressively that their important predecessors, the American Modernists, were all but forgotten.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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