American Modernism in 7 themes
A guide to key strands in early 20th-century American painting, from industrial landscapes to rural vistas, via Paris and abstraction. Featuring works offered in American Art on 18 November 2021
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 Arthur Dove, Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler, looked to the landscape for inspiration. Artists, such as Edward Hopper and Oscar Bluemner, gleaned inspiration from specific urban locales in their personal modernist idioms. A further group of artists, among them Walt Kuhn and Milton Avery, continued to explore figuration in their work: Kuhn portraying gripping depictions of circus performers, and Avery using the figure to explore tensions between representation and abstraction. Others, including Josef Albers and Charles Green Shaw, abandoned representation altogether.
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 seven 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, Arthur Dove,
John Marin and the photographer
Paul Strand. They became known as the Stieglitz Circle
and were exhibited at various renditions of his galleries such as The Intimate Gallery and An American Place.
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. Their shared commitment and spiritual connection to nature led to a mutual admiration for one another's work and a lifelong artistic dialogue. O'Keeffe collected Dove’s work, and reflected, ‘Dove had an earthy, simple quality that led directly to abstraction. His things are very special. I always wish I’d bought more of them.’
Modern American artists beyond the Stieglitz Circle, such as George Bellows and Edward Hopper, would similarly travel to the New England shore during the warmer months seeking inspiration.
2. The industrial landscape and the Precisionists
In his artistic interpretations of the new urban metropolis, Oscar Bluemner was endlessly inspired by the mills and factories around his home in New Jersey. He reinterpreted these gritty industrial scenes into striking visions in his signature colour of red. Also preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of urban life, John Marin once said, ‘the whole city is alive; buildings, people, all are alive.’
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, George Ault, 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 powerfully atmospheric. While primarily associated with urban imagery, Precisionist artists would also apply the same minimal approach to still-lifes or rural landscapes.
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.
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
Davis’ knowledge of and interaction with Abstraction and European Modernism are clearly evident in his later work. The work of Henri Matisse such as The Codomas (Les Codomas) from Jazz (1947, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) was a source of inspiration for Davis, as was the palette of Paul Gauguin and the Synthetic Cubism of George Braque and Pablo Picasso. However, Davis also maintained a remarkable dedication to presenting classic American subjects throughout the entirety of his 50-plus years of work.
4. 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 are similar to the mobiles that Alexander Calder was developing
at around the same time.
Collage was also 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.
5. American Regionalism
Artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Dale Nichols were among the American Regionalists who sought to capture the country’s pastoral landscape.
As the 20th century’s champion of rural America, Thomas Hart Benton dedicated himself to an honest portrayal of the nation’s singular landscape. Early in his career, Benton studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris, where he spent several years admiring the work of French painters Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse and interacting with fellow American Modernists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. However, neither these settings, nor the perspectives of his fellow artists, satisfied Benton’s quest for purpose in his art. It was not until Benton joined the United States Navy in 1918 and was assigned to sketch their activities that he found true direction for his art: a combined focus on subject as much as on style.
In 1920, in the early days of this new approach to his work, Benton first sought refuge from the sweltering summer days of New York on Martha’s Vineyard. Sparsely populated at the time of his first visit in 1920—well before it became a popular vacation destination—the island provided new clarity with which Benton developed his singular artistic language.
Benton at first vacillated between varying degrees of abstraction and realism. As his confidence grew, Benton continued to shift his focus towards everyday life on the island and created his first American genre paintings—the unique realistic and figurative renderings of rural subjects that cemented his fame.
6. Figurative Art
One of the founding members of the 1913 Armory Show, Brooklyn-born Walt Kuhn was central to the introduction of European Modernism to America. Having studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and the Royal Academy in Munich, modern masters such as Paul Cézanne left lasting impressions on Kuhn’s work. After his return to the United States, Kuhn became a major proponent of American Modernism by forming the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Association’s first and only exhibition, the historic Armory Show exposed the American public to progressive new art for the first time.
Kuhn’s striking clown portraits are recognised as his most important body of work, with examples in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, amongst other institutions. In the early 1920s, Kuhn worked as a director and designer on Broadway to support his family, and in the 1930s and 40s would frequent Ringling Brothers performances, obtaining a press pass in 1941 to further his access backstage. His intimate relationships behind the scenes translated into his focussed canvasses.
Another master of American figuration is Milton Avery whose commitment to combining representation and abstraction has left an indelible mark on generations of Post-War painters. Avery’s bold colours and flat shapes emerged following his first encounters with Modern art after his move to New York City. Known as the ‘American Fauve’, Milton Avery was inspired by French Modernists, such as Matisse and Cézanne, who prioritised colour in their compositions. The Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman were devotees of Avery, and his late washes of luminous paint were a clear precursor to Colour Field painting.
From 1920 onwards, Avery spent summers in New England creating art that depicted the natural world. His landscapes and beachscapes demonstrated the Modernist flattening and minimising of form, striking use of colour and calligraphic mark-making for which he became celebrated. Avery's work from the mid to late-40s has the distinctive hallmarks of simplified forms and blocks of colour that embody the artist's most iconic works. Avery always painted in his home, never in a separate studio, and his subjects were those people and scenes close at hand.
Avery’s disinclination to follow fads, to come down on either side of abstract or representational tendencies, has given his work a remarkable longevity and popularity among artists in the decades since his death.
7. 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.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Rebecca Salsbury James (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 Ansel Adams and D.H. Lawrence. The house was known as Los Gallos
(The Roosters) due to the brightly coloured porcelain roosters
on the roof.
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.
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 even when he was living in
Berlin in the early 1920s.