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: Early Modernism In America: Art for a New Century


Dennis Michael Jon



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The emergence of Modernism in the United States during the early 20th century can be credited to the efforts of a small community of artists, writers, and gallery owners who embraced and promoted many of the experimental and sometimes radical innovations of the European avant-garde. Reacting to the quickening pace and the many social and intellectual upheavals of the 1910s, these pioneers rejected the dominant academic traditions of the19th century, seeking instead modes of expression they felt would more accurately reflect new realities of American life. American artists who recognized the liberating influence of avant-garde idioms began to adopt the formal vocabularies of the leading modern movements, notably Cubism, Futurism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. Yet, true to the American tradition of self-sufficiency, they insisted on individualism and freedom of expression; the result was an eclectic array of new styles and ideologies characteristic of American modernism of this period.Beginning Friday, June 9, a selection of American Modernist art will be exhibited in Gallery 209 of the museum's East Wing. The new display, part of the Institute's ongoing reinstallation project, will showcase works by many of the leading figures of the American avant-garde, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, Max Weber, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Joseph Stella, and Alfred Stieglitz. In addition to paintings and sculpture, the installation will feature a selection of drawings, watercolors, prints, and photographs embodying the myriad styles, media, and techniques that coexisted early in this century. Because a portion of the gallery will be devoted to works on paper, the display will be changed three times a year to protect sensitive items from the potentially damaging effects of light. Two of the leading proponents of the new art were the painter Robert Henri and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Henri and his circle, though primarily realist in style and outlook, directly challenged many conservative traditions of academic art, advocating freedom from the jury system and new parameters of acceptable subject matter. Specifically, Henri epoused the importance of painting themes from daily life and of expressing personal emotions through art. His example encouraged many artists to question the stagnant state of contemporary American art, and it fostered experimentation and individualism.In many ways, the efforts of Alfred Stieglitz surpassed those of Henri. A highly creative photographer, Stieglitz opened his Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession, later known as 291, on New York's Fifth Avenue in1905. Initially devoted to photographic reform, the gallery soon became the leading showplace for avant-garde European and American art. A tireless promoter, Stieglitz introduced the work of such noted modern European artists as Rodin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, and Picasso. At the same time, he featured images by several promising young American Modrenists, including Hartley, Marin, Weber, Dove, O'Keeffe, Abraham Walkowitz, and Arthur B. Carles. And although he closed 291 in 1917, Stieglitz played a major role in steering the course of American art and culture from the turn of the century through the early 1920s.Equally important in the development of American Modernism was the famous International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, better known as the New York Armory Show. The exhibition, organized under the leadership of the painter Arthur B. Davies, displayed more than 1,300 works by advanced American and European artists and is still regarded as probably the single most important art exhibition ever held in the United States. For the first time in this country, a large public audience saw modern art. Although the initial reaction of that audience was decidedly negative, the exhibition powerfully and immediately influenced the direction of American modern art and laid the groundwork for a new wave of artists, collectors, and galleries.Several key works from the Institute's permanent collection will anchor the new installation of Modernist art. Among these are O'Keeffe's evocative New Mexico landscape, Pedernal-From the Ranch #1, painted in 1956. Although a later example of the artist's work, the painting displays the same austere, lyrical qualities that characterized her images of the 1910s and 1920s. Using simplified geometric forms and a limited palette of blues and ochres, she depicts Pedernal Peak, a prominent mesa near her home at Ghost Ranch. O'Keeffe was drawn repeatedly to the mystical qualities of this subject, incorporating the local landmark in her paintings as early as 1936.
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Source: Dennis Michael Jon, "Early Modernism in America: Art for a New Century. A New Installation Highlights the Institute's Collection of Modernist Art," <i>Arts</i> 18, no. 6 (June 1995): 8-9.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009