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American Modernists

Breaking the Mold

By Susan Saccoccia | HUMANITIES, July/August 2005 | Volume 26, Number 4

In 1915, New York City was a city on the rise. Its skyscrapers soared higher than any other buildings in the world, manifesting the surging ambition of a young country that was transforming itself with technological prowess. Europe was at war while American industry was generating jobs and products that promised to improve daily life. But American inventiveness extended beyond industry. In New York City, a handful of artists were striving to create American modern art.

This circle included the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who described the endeavor as a quest for "the Great American Thing."

O'Keeffe's phrase is the title of both a book and an exhibition: "The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935." Organized by the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, and the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, the exhibition will be an inaugural exhibition for the Figge from September 17, 2005, to January 1, 2006. The Tacoma Art Museum will present the exhibition from February 4 to May 21, 2006. Both the Figge and the Tacoma Art Museum are newly rebuilt institutions and share the ambition to provide their regions with exhibitions of national importance.

Published in 1999, the book and its companion exhibition present an overlooked chapter in the history of American modernism. Between the wars, artists on both sides of the Atlantic were creating a new visual language celebrating an America not of virgin wilderness but of ingenuity and invention. They used tools of the new styles--cubism, expressionism, and dadaism--to render America's sinuous, glistening, engineered world, from spark plugs and dynamos to factories, suspension bridges, and skyscrapers.

"The prevailing metanarrative is that modern art starts in the United States after World War Two," says Wanda M. Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University, author of the book and exhibition cocurator. "We want to reestablish the early story of modernism and the sense that New York had in the teens and twenties of rivaling Paris. The history of New York as an art capital starts here.

"These artists also created a certain identity for New York that we still depend upon as an index of its special-ness," continues Corn, "skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Broadway. They helped to index the highlights of a tour around Manhattan. It's what we all do when we go to New York."

The exhibition presents more than 130 paintings, photographs, and sculptures as well as related objects such as books, consumer products, and films of the era. "What is so appealing about the book and carried through in the exhibition is the relationship between art and what inspired it," says Linda Downs, director of the Figge Art Museum, who proposed transforming the book into an exhibition.

Drawing from the themes in Corn's book, the exhibition brings together the different currents of first-generation American modernism. Its sections comprise: "The Modernists in Formation," "Transatlantic Exchange," "Engineered America," "Jazz America," "Ancestral America," and "Spiritual America."

"The transatlantics saw America in the hard lines of skyscrapers and the shiny surfaces of art deco cocktail shakers," says Patricia McDonnell, exhibition cocurator and chief curator of the Tacoma Art Museum. "They believed American culture was defined by its brand-newness, engineering ingenuity, popular culture, and jazz. They appreciated America as bold and young, not mired in tradition."

Some American modernists looked homeward, to a native architecture of the practical, from factories, grain elevators, and barns to the artisanship of an early America, including plain folk art. They also turned to nature--but not as representational artists. Instead of painting grand vistas, they rendered close-up encounters with the sublime, using the tools of cubism and abstraction that they also applied to machines.

While American enterprises built skyscrapers, the headquarters of American modernism initially were the Manhattan galleries of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. New Jersey-born Stieglitz became a fine-art photographer in Germany and then moved to New York, where he presented some of the first American exhibitions of Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, and Brancusi.

"Our story begins when Stieglitz decides that his mission is not to bring European modernism to America, but rather to sponsor and support American artists who can make American art," says Corn. "They felt that their country had always been culturally inferior to Europe. But they believed that they had the smarts and the energy and the will to do something in New York. And Europeans helped them believe that."

Stieglitz nurtured and promoted his circle of "Seven Americans," a group that included himself, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, and a variable seventh member, whom Stieglitz referred to as "six + X." This person was often Charles Demuth.

The exhibition presents works of the Stieglitz circle and the broader avant-garde community, including Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, and Max Weber; photographers Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, and Margaret Bourke-White; African American artists Romare Bearden and Archibald J. Motley Jr.; and artists with roots in both continents, such as Joseph Stella, George Grosz, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp.

When Duchamp moved to New York in 1915, he already had a reputation as an iconoclast. His painting Nude Descending a Staircase had caused a scandal at the monumental 1913 Armory Show, which introduced America to European modernists. He and fellow Parisian Picabia set about creating an American wing of dada, an anti-aesthetic movement that grew out of reaction to World War I. They found in American consumerism and engineering fresh material to express inner experience and satirize art-world pieties, including those of their American modernist allies.

Europeans were the first to recognize American technical ingenuity as a cultural force. In his Berlin studio, dadaist George Grosz pinned up a photo of Henry Ford. European-born architects such as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius admired and sketched plain, practical American structures such as factories and grain elevators.

The exhibition demonstrates the convoluted interplay between European and American modernists. At home and overseas, Americans gained confidence in their own culture as they absorbed Europeans' fervor for American jazz, consumer products, and feats of engineering.

In the process, they distilled their shared experience into a new language. Decades before the soup cans of Andy Warhol and the flags of Jasper Johns, these early modernists incorporated the Stars and Stripes and brand-name products into art.

But the qualities that distinguished America could vary with the eye of the beholder. Some yearned for a preindustrial America. Inspired by viewing Native American artifacts in the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, Maine-born Marsden Hartley visited the Southwest. Back in Germany, he painted his "Amerika" series, which rendered American tribal motifs for a German audience.

Jazz was an American invention that captivated the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic. Here was music grounded in a syncopated, offbeat tempo but as open to new ingredients as a Creole gumbo. European fans packed American-style jazz clubs.

The exhibition's "Jazz America" section displays film clips of performances from the twenties and thirties by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fredi Washington. Motley's Blues renders the energy and exuberance of a Chicago jazz club with cool curves and hot colors. Yet Motley painted the scene after visiting a Paris club, where people went to enjoy the new American music.

In this golden age of the ocean liner, artists frequently crossed the Atlantic. They celebrated their Le Havre-New York connection by painting the sleek machines that transported them.

Charles Demuth's Paquebot "Paris" is accompanied by photographs of the ship as well as cruise posters, souvenir programs, and postcards. The painting demonstrates a precisionist's focus on form.

Demuth uses the cool-tempered devices of mass media advertising, dadaist humor, and cubist geometry to create images of great warmth. In the "Engineered America" section, Demuth's Lancaster, 1921, and Buildings, Lancaster, 1930, are hometown scenes. In the later painting, a golden-yellow sign identifies a local business that stands in scale with the other mid-rise buildings on the street.

Demuth portrayed his friends by creating economical and precise visual poems on handmade posters. In Poster Portrait: Dove, Demuth uses symbols of sea and soil to evoke the earthbound experiences that inspired his friend, whose name hovers dove white in the sky.

Like transatlantic travel, New York looms large as a subject in the exhibition.

"By 1920, the new New York of skyscrapers, bridges, and bustling crowds had come to be a big subject for modernists on both sides of the Atlantic," writes Corn. "They took New York as their subject so that its greatness could be theirs."

The "Engineering America" section displays Manhatta, a seven-minutesilent film made in 1920 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. Their Whitmanesque hymn to a day in the city conveys the energy and grandeur of a young Manhattan and its builders. Commuters parade off the Staten Island ferry. Men wearing straw boaters stride along on the sidewalks, their raked shadows cutting an image of Jazz Age verve. In a slow pan, the camera ogles the flank of a skyscraper. Steel workers straddle the frames of new buildings. Even the tugboats move with spunk in this rhapsody to Manhattan.

But as Corn notes in her book, not every artist shared such euphoria. Edward Hopper painted downbeat, lonely scenes. The urban realists of the Ashcan School rendered close-ups of city life in its grit and occasional grace.

The Stieglitz circle cast long views of the city that focused on forms rather than people. Georgia O'Keeffe's Radiator Building-Night, New York shears away most of the building's ornate trim and tiers and turns it into a shaft of pulsing light. She adds a touch of dada playfulness by putting the name of Stieglitz in lights, like a Broadway sign.

Dadaists crossbred art and technology. Duchamp's Traveler's Folding Item--an Underwood typewriter cover--stands near a noiseless Underwood typewriter of the period and Ralph Steiner's 1921 photograph, "Typewriter Keys." His close-up endows the prim buttons with the visual rhythm of a piano keyboard.

Looking homeward, artists also sought an authentic America beyond New York City. The "Ancestral America" section features works by O'Keeffe and Hartley, who explored Native American arts and rituals in Santa Fe and Taos, where O'Keeffe spent the last four decades of her long life.

Turning her eye from skyscrapers to animal skeletons, O'Keeffe transformed a clichéd icon of the American West--bleached animal skulls--into images of spare intensity.

This section also presents works of Romare Bearden and William Henry Johnson, who drew upon their African American roots in the rural South.

A new appetite for collecting Americana offered still another source of an authentic America: early crafts and artwork with a formal simplicity that appealed to modernists.

Known for creating icons of industrial art, Sheeler surrounded himself with traditional American furniture. He rendered these objects of daily life with a modernist's eye for structure. Born from an American love of the particular and real, Sheeler's images are simultaneously precise descriptions and revelatory abstractions, whether his eye is trained on a barn, a blast furnace, or the band of light across a Shaker table.

The section entitled "Spiritual America" unites all of the Stieglitz Seven, who shared a modernist strain of American transcendentalism. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, they sought experiences of the sublime in nature. But they rendered these intimate encounters with modernist tools that abstract and distill experiences.

Dove's Sunrise is a spare yet voluptuous rendering of the moment-by-moment mutations of the sun. O'Keeffe's Oak Leaves, Pink and Grey is a luminous, nearly touchable close-up of dying leaves.

Modernist values of economy and distillation extended to other arts, including literature. The exhibition brings out this point by displaying quotations from prominent writers of the day.

"Ezra Pound edited T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land with the principle to remove non-performing words," says Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Jr., Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and an exhibition adviser. "His act of compression increases the power of the poem. He was in sync with modernist, machine-age ideas from engineering that a machine is most efficient if its designer eliminates unnecessary parts. This exhibition demonstrates the importance and reach of America's material culture."

Critics may overlook this first chapter of American modernism but artists continue to learn from its pathfinders.

"Generations of artists across the twentieth century have turned to this pioneering group as a source of inspiration," says McDonnell. "Any number of contemporary painters still look back to them and find content and formal devices to emulate, including the incredible paint handling and pictorial vocabulary that they generated."

About the Author

Susan Saccoccia is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Funding Information

The Figge Art Museum received $350,000 in NEH support for the exhibition "The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935."