american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1913 (Futurism)

Charles Russell, Cosmic Synchromy, 1913-14 (Synchromism)

Max Weber, Rush Hour, New York, 1915 (Futurism)

John Marin, Lower Manhattan from the Woolworth Building, 1922

Patrick Henry Bruce, Still-Life, 1921-22 (Purism)

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930 (Precisionism)

modernist art


people, terms, and concepts: modernism, abstract (as a verb and as a noun), Synchromism, Precisionism, Futurism, The Armory Show, 291 Gallery, synaesthesia

Modernism is a blanket term that covers a lot of very different styles and issues. It can be generally defined in three ways: (1) by its reaction to modern social and technological conditions (industrialization, city life, etc.); (2) by its rejection of the traditional naturalistic style; and (3) by the outraged reactions it tended to provoke from the general public (at least when it first appeared). The Ashcan School and Aestheticism can already be seen as modernist in at least a couple of these senses. The artists and styles we are looking at for this topic include the Synchromists (Macdonald-Wright and Russell), the Precisionists (Sheeler, Demuth, occasionally O’Keeffe), the Futurists (Stella, Weber), various artists who worked primarily in Europe (Zorach, Maurer, Bruce, Hartley), and a bunch of miscellaneous artists who exhibited in Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York City (Marin, Dove, and O’Keeffe).  Note that these artists vary widely in how ‘modernist’ they are and in what sense(s) the term applies.  Note also that the modernists had many different reasons for departing from traditional subjects and styles, although if you need a broad generalization most of them tended to distort visible reality in order to express things that cannot be conveyed in a naturalistic representation of objects, such as emotions, energy, character, sensations, movement, synaesthetic effects, etc.  

The key to analyzing Modernist art is to pay very close attention, not just to the subject matter (what is represented in the work), but to the form or style (how the subject matter is represented):  the use of line, shape, color, composition, etc. (see the back of the museum assignment).  A good analysis will show how all of the artist’s formal choices work together toward the meaning of the work; whatever the artist was trying to convey or express about his or her subject matter (if there is any). Modern art can either modify the normal visual appearance of the object, in which case the work still has recognizable subject matter, but is said to be abstracted (v.) from reality to varying degrees; or the artist can just work with line, shape, and color alone, without any underlying subject matter at all, in which case the work is said to be abstract (n.).


Readings:  Craven chapter 30 plus selections on the Armory Show (PDF)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.


     1) Below are two paintings from the same year by John Marin:  a Maine coastal scene and a New York City scene.  Closely compare/contrast the two works to explain how Marin adapted his style (brushwork, lines, shapes, composition, etc.) to convey different feelings about each.

     2)  What were the aims of the Precisionists?  How did they achieve their aims through their choices of subject-matter and style?  Compare/contrast their approach to depicting modern industrial life and the city to George Bellows's Cliff Dwellers and Max Weber's Rush Hour, New York (both on webpages).  Email me by Monday evening with your choices of Precisionist works to analyze.

     3)  From the extra reading, discuss the different reactions to the modernist art shown in the 1913 Armory Show.  What were its organizers trying to achieve?  What was Kenyon Cox's reaction (see figure 24.15 for an example of his work)?  Theodore Roosevelt's?  What do you think?  Email me by Monday evening with your choices of works to analyze.

Arthur Dove, Foghorns, 1929

George O'Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

John Marin, Maine Islands, 1922