When someone mentions “modern art,” what immediately comes to mind? If you’re not so familiar with popular art movements or art history, you might assume modern art to be something that is happening right now, as most of us have become accustomed to understanding modern as new, recent, and ongoing. It’s fairly easy to mix up the modern art period with contemporary (postmodern) art, or assume that modern art is comprised of abstraction and non-representational composition. While modern art as an overall trend is comprised of mark making that is separate from visual reality, modernism is a movement that, in philosophy, encourages mankind to reshape and improve our environment—it enables our progressive sensibilities through scientific discovery, technology, and experimentation. This was a dynamic that many modern artists chose to explore in a range of stylistic decisions. American modernism is primarily unique from global or European modernism because of this reason: the variability in approach is more pronounced—some styles are unique only to the United States.
Every Wednesday I attend the Exploring American Art lecture series given by the Smithsonian Associates, which offers multiple classes on turbulent periods of artistic revolution in our nation. The courses are led by art historian, Bonita Billman, whose previous lecture focused on Realism and Impressionism. In my last post I discussed how many periods of art are born simply because artists get fed up with the status quo. Early American Modernism was catalyzed in this same way. Bonita Billman opened the lecture with a brief synopsis of “The Ten,” a group who seceded from the New York-based Society of American Artists together after questioning whether or not progressive styles of art were truly valued in comparison to old-school classicism and romantic realism. The Ten were also seeking a more egalitarian method of displaying their own work-- at their group shows, everyone received equal amounts of space to present their work, which largely went unjuried. This action in itself set a precedent for the highly individualistic nature of modern art and, as it turns out, one of the members of The Ten (William Merritt Chase) ended up mentoring future revolutionaries and icons, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent.
Ten American Painters (The Ten), 1908, by Haeseler Photographic Studios, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
As mentioned prior in the post, there were a lot of styles that one normally would not visualize as typically modern. For example, American Scene painting (Regionalism), was actually a movement away from events such as industrialization and urbanization; Regionalism hearkened to times of pastoralism, isolationism, and quintessential American agrarianism. Even still, though, as an attempt to wade backwards in time and provide American nostalgia, it refused to hearken to other artists who were moving into a modern mindset, thus ironically making itself more individualistic. One of the most famous Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart Benton, had a style that ended up being an essential part of the abstract movement, even though he himself resented abstraction. The world is small, truthfully, and it turns out there were other high-profile pupil relationships during this period: the epitome of all things modern, Jackson Pollock, was Benton’s student. If you’ve ever looked at Pollock’s work pre-Abstract Expressionism (or pre-drip series), you can see the relationship between their painting styles.
Thomas Hart Benton, The Cliffs, 1921 oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum
Another sub-genre of American Scene painting was a focus on urban realism. American realism itself was focused on naturalistic representation and truth, and Hopper accomplished this, but also allowed intimate perspective and emotions to resonate within his work. Lloyd Goodrich said this about Hopper: "No artist has painted a more revealing portrait of twentieth-century America. But he was not merely an objective realist. His art was charged with strong personal emotion, with a deep attachment to our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty.” Hopper had a tendency to reflect what he saw realistically, but additionally he had a tendency to simplify parts of his aesthetic—he was particularly talented at editing content out of compositions that seemed unnecessary while keeping the central images and concepts staunch. This idea of simplification was essential to later artists, as well as concepts in abstraction.
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927 oil on canvas
To keep this blog consistent, I must reference the fact that not only was Hopper influenced by William Merritt Chase, but he also learned a good deal from Robert Henri, who later went to found the Ashcan School. We all like to imagine these modern painters and artists as highly individualistic (which they were to a degree in their independent style and execution), but what we don’t consider is the vast, interconnected effect they instilled in one another, intentional or no. The art world is like a farm community: it’s tight knit, and most everyone knows each other, knows one another’s business, and ends up taking direct or indirect influence. When we think of Jackson Pollock, very rarely do we stop to think about Thomas Hart Benton, who was influenced by Diego Rivera, or Picasso, who influenced Rivera, so on and so forth. No artist alone is so genius that they immediately start making their own art without first being moved by someone or something else.
I challenge you to start looking at some of your favorite artists—they don’t have to be visual artists, but artists in general—and trace their personal inspirations, and then trace the inspirations of those artists, so on and so forth. The results can be revealing.
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