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)

Arthur Dove, Foghorns, 1929

George O'Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

John Marin, Maine Islands, 1922

modernist art

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

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, maybe O’Keeffe), the Futurists (Stella, Weber), various expatriate 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, synesthetic 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.  A good analysis will show how all of the artist’s formal choices work together toward the meaning of the work, i.e., whatever the artist was trying to convey or express about their 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.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1) (*Alejandro Martinez*) Compare/contrast John Marin's Maine Islands and Lower Manhattan from the Woolworth Building, both of which were painted in 1922. Although they are very similar in style, how did Marin carefully adapt his use of brushwork, line, shape, space, composition, and so on to convey the very different feelings of a Maine coastal scene and a New York City urban scene, respectively?

2) (*Elizabeth Gomaere*) Compare/contrast Reginald Marsh's Tattoo and Haircut (1932) and Max Weber's Rush Hour, New York (1915) as different ways of representing modern urban life, considering form/style as well as subject matter. Which do you think is more effective and why? Or are they effective at differen things?

3) (*Sydallee Williams*) What were the aims of the American Precisionists? How did they achieve their aims through their choices of subject-matter and form/style? Use Charles Demuth's I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) and Charles Sheeler's American Landscape (1930) as examples. Follow-up: should Georgia O'Keeffe be considered a Precisionist? Why or why not?

4) (*CJ Dinius*) 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? Does modern art (i.e. art that does not look naturalistic) bring anything valuable to the table?