Spanierman Gallery is pleased to announce the opening on February 17, 2011 of American Modernism, an exhibition encompassing the multi-faceted nature of American modernist art in the first half of the twentieth century.
Modernist influence took root in America in the first decade of the twentieth century. Although realism—exemplified by the Ashcan School—was ascendant at the time, a concurrent awareness of new European modes was emerging quietly, both in this country, where Alfred Stieglitz began to show the works of French progressives at his Photo-Secession Gallery in New York in 1908, and in Europe, where a number of American artists became exposed directly to the avant-garde. Patrick Henry Bruce, Alfred Maurer, and Marsden Hartley frequented the famed Parisian salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, which encouraged their adoption of the influences of cubism and fauvism as well as of the styles of Matisse and Picasso. These are apparent in Maurer’s Fauve Landscape (ca. 1909) and Bruce’s Still Life with Plate (ca. 1912). In Paris at the same time, Max Weber studied with Matisse and befriended Picasso, drawing on the inspiration of their art for Joel’s Café (ca. 1909-10).
The Armory Show of 1913, held in New York, Boston, and Chicago, was the pivotal point at which modernism took hold in America. The art of the cubists, fauvists, futurists, orphists, and dadaists in this large-scale exhibition outraged the public, but younger artists were exhilarated by it and quickly appropriated its novel approaches. One of the key organizers of the show, Arthur B. Davies created an original group of paintings from 1914 to 1918 in which he melded the tenets of cubism and synchromism into decoratively patterned images, such as Composition with Figures (ca. 1914). Other artists who responded to the new aesthetic modes include Allen Tucker, who also helped organize the show and developed a unique van Gogh-inspired approach, and Myron Lechay, who rendered scenes of urban life noted for their economy of means and delicate color.
European artists, who emigrated to America at the time of World War I, spurred the spread of modernism in this country, which continued into the 1920s, as demonstrated in the works of Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Jan Matulka. However, this trajectory was suppressed by the arrival of the Great Depression, when the isolationist attitude that descended over the art world compelled artists to focus on distinctly American content and eschew European styles. Nonetheless, a resistance movement supportive of abstract modes of expression gradually gathered force, culminating in the formation in 1936 of American Abstract Artists, consisting of a group of artists committed to abstract and non-objective expression, including Burgoyne Diller, Balcomb Greene (the group’s first chairman), Gertrude Glass Greene, Carl Holty, George L. K. Morris, Charles Green Shaw, and Willard Grayson Smythe. Many of these artists were featured in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the Guggenheim Foundation’s first museum), which opened in 1939 under the guidance of the German painter Hilla Rebay, a strong supporter of the art of Rolph Scarlett. Influences from advanced European modes are also present in works from the 1930s such as Alexander Calder’s Untitled (Biomorphic Forms) (1933), Francis Criss’s precisionist and divisionist El Station (ca. 1935), James Daugherty’s Synchromist Landscape (1933), and Hilaire Hiler’s surrealist Castles in Spain (1931).
Spurred by artists from the School of Paris who sought sanctuary in America from the ravages of World War II, such as Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, modern modes revived and diversified in America in the 1940s, a decade represented in paintings by Gershon Benjamin, Ben Benn, Byron Browne, José DeCreeft, Fannie Hillsmith, and John Wilde. Artists working in the 1950s continued to draw from a versatile vocabulary of modernist forms, including Emil Bisttram, Conrad Buff, George Segal, Jan Müller, William Sanderson, and George Segal. Their art and the varied and innovative works of other early twentieth century American moderns provided a bedrock from which abstract expressionism and the New York School evolved.