American Modernism in 5 themes
A guide to key strands in early 20th-century American painting, from industrial landscapes to desert vistas, via Paris and abstraction. Featuring works offered in American Art on 22 May
In the early 1900s, America underwent a period of rapid modernisation.
With the advent of the railroad and mass production, America’s
landscape was irrevocably transformed. Into this machine-efficient
world of factories and skyscrapers came artists, trying to
make sense of the modern age. Their paintings reflected the
concerns of the American people, the ever-evolving landscape
and the alienation felt amid the immense shadows of ascending cities.
Many of the artists had trained in Europe and were aware of
the intellectual revolution in art happening there. Some
adopted Cubist and Surrealist techniques, like
Stuart Davis, while others, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and
Charles Sheeler, looked to the landscape for inspiration. A further group of artists, among them Josef Albers and
Charles Green Shaw, abandoned representation altogether
for a radical new concept known as abstraction.
Each artist performed a triumphant territory grab for American
Modernism. The result was a multifarious movement that
encompasses many different styles and subjects, and which anticipated
the later post-war movements that included Abstract Expressionism.
Here we take a look at five defining themes that came to represent
this great dawning of American culture.
1. The American landscape and the Stieglitz Circle
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was a pivotal figure in
early American Modernism. A pioneering photographer and gallery
owner, he was a tireless promoter of a group of artists who
sought to depict the American landscape with a spiritual
intensity. Among them were the painters Georgia O’Keeffe,
John Marin and the photographer
Paul Strand. They became known as the Stieglitz Circle
and were exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, in New York.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) would wander in the landscape
surrounding Stieglitz’s family home at Lake George in Upstate
New York, collecting leaves, apples and flowers, which she
then depicted in her paintings — often cropping the subject, or painting it in close-up and heightening the colour, to
create images of striking intensity.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) and John Marin (1870-1953) devoted
much of their careers to painting the jagged coastline of
Maine, capturing the turbulent seas with bold, vigorous brushstrokes.
Their technique arguably anticipated the later Abstract Expressionist
Like O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove (1880-1946) sought to unlock the
mystique of the natural environment in his paintings. In Long Island, the artist depicts the rocks along a
harbour wall as ominous primordial shapes.
2. The industrial landscape and the Precisionists
The Precisionists were not an organised movement but a group
of like-minded individuals who sought to depict, through
soft, precise brushwork, the sleek lines and flat, hard-edged
forms of the new industrial landscape. Among them were the
painters Charles Sheeler,
Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth,
Joseph Stella, Elsie Driggs and
Morton Schamberg. These painters echoed the anonymity
of the city by hiding their personalities from the viewer.
They created a new form of art that was cool, detached and
The above painting by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) is based on a
trip to a factory in West Virginia. It epitomises the Precisionist
aesthetic, converting industrial architecture into a geometric
arrangement of American red, white and blue.
Francis Criss (1901-1973) was inspired by heavy industry along
the East River in Manhattan to create Melancholy River, a scene that also incorporates
elements of Surrealism.
John Storrs paid homage to the modern architecture of
the skyscraper with strikingly vertical sculptures, such as
the monumental masterpiece Study in Architectural Forms, above.
While primarily associated with urban imagery, Precisionist
artists would also apply the same minimal approach to still-lifes
or rural landscapes. George Ault’s New England Landscape, above, is a fine example.
3. The Americans in Paris
From the late 19th century, Paris was the capital of the avant-garde, attracting artists, musicians and writers from all over
the world to live there. The list of Americans drawn to the
cultural demi-monde is well known: George Gershwin, Ernest
Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald could all be found applying
their sinewy intellects in Gertrude Stein’s salon.
The city enabled the American artists Elie Nadelman, Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley and Patrick Henry Bruce to become acquainted with the pioneers of Cubism and Fauvism — styles that they then reinterpreted as American Modernism.
Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936) moved to Paris
in 1903, where he became a favourite of French avant-garde
circles. He knew Gertrude and Leo Stein and enrolled in Henri
Matisse’s school, where he embarked on a style that would
come to define him. Using geometric forms that resembled
domestic objects — as in 1924’s Peinture/Nature Mort, above — he created a series of boldly coloured
still-life paintings that incorporated Cubist elements.
In 1928 the artist Stuart Davis (1892-1964) moved to Montparnasse, attracted by its vibrancy and its mix of modern and traditional
architecture. He met
Alexander Calder and
Fernand Léger, and embarked on a series of abstracted
cityscapes that incorporated planes of colour and overlapping
lines. The later work Still Life in the Street, above, painted in 1941, reinterprets one of his early Parisian compositions.
4. The great American desert
Many American artists were attracted to the raw and alarming
beauty of the arid southwest. Some, like the members of the
Taos Society of Artists, settled there and became known for
their paintings of the region’s wide skies and its people.
Others, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and John Marin, were drawn here from New York by its sublime isolation.
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) created awesome visions of
the seemingly infinite landscape of the southwest. With 1941’s Cloud, above, we
can see his trademark low horizon and marching cloud formations.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Rebecca Salsbury Strand (1891-1968) first
journeyed west in 1929, staying in Taos, New Mexico, with
Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Gertrude Stein-like figure of the
southwest, who hosted artists and writers including AnselAdams and D.H. Lawrence. The house was known as Los Gallos
(The Roosters) due to the brightly coloured porcelain roosters
on the roof, as depicted in O’Keeffe’s Porcelain Rooster pastel, above, executed on that first trip in 1929.
O’Keeffe eventually relocated to New Mexico, living both at
Ghost Ranch and the ‘big house’ in Abiquiu. In addition to
the landscape, she was fascinated by the adobe architecture
of the area and made a series of paintings inspired by the
black door of her enclosed patio — including Black Door with Snow, above — evoking the geometry of
the building with an exploration toward abstraction.
Marsden Hartley first arrived in New Mexico in June of 1918, and was immediately inspired by the clear light and colours
of the landscape. He saw the land as otherworldly and painted
it as such — Landscape with Single Cloud, above, is a good example — continuing to do so even when he was living in
Berlin in the early 1920s.
5. American Abstraction and the Park Avenue Cubists
In the late 1930s a group of American painters that included
Paul Kelpe, and
Vaclav Vytlacil founded The American Abstract Artists
(AAA). Their aim was to develop a new approach to painting characterised
by shapes and primary colours.
Among the initial circle of the AAA was also a small cohort
of wealthy abstract artists from New York, known colloquially
as the Park Avenue Cubists. They included
Albert Gallatin, Charles Green Shaw, George L.K. Morris
and his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen. The group were inspired by Pablo
Picasso, Juan Gris, George Braque and Fernand Léger, and
combined Constructivist and Cubist principles into their
Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974) studied architecture at Columbia
University before becoming an abstract artist. His polygonal
shapes in primary colours reflected the New York City skyline, while the wire-like lines, as typified in Untitled , are similar to the mobiles that Alexander Calder was developing
at around the same time.
Collage was a common practice of the Cubists. The artist Suzy
Frelinghuysen (1911-1988) used corrugated cardboard to blur
the lines between representation and abstraction, and between
two-and three-dimensional art. While at first appearing wholly abstract, Her Composition, above, painted in 1943, actually relates to an image of a bullfighter.