This paper examines the difference between the American and European avant-garde artists from 1900 to the 1920’s. Typically European art of this period has received much attention, while the concurrent American art little. In recent years there has been a reevaluation of the significance of early American modernists and the recognition of the eminence of artists like Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and others of this period is established. The overwhelming amount of material written about the influence of European artists such as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Braque on modern art had placed concurrent American artists as peripheral figures in the history of art. The art work of early American abstractionists are viewed today as forming a unique and separate place in the history of art.
The Cubists stunned the art world with paintings emphasizing the formal elements of art: composition, the arrangement of geometric shapes, movement, color and pattern. However, their American counterparts adopted a less obvious form of abstraction. Instead of obliterating the image as a reference to a recognizable object, they retained the object and enhanced its qualities by concentrating on the emotional sensations it aroused.
The art work of early American modernists are important as unique reflections of the history of art in America and as a significant influence on the avant-garde expressionist artists of the 1950’s. I will use the works of John Marin 1870-1953, Marsden Hartley 1877-1943, Arthur Dove 1880-1946, Charles Demuth 1883-1935, Charles Sheeler 1883-1965 and Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986 to show that in their various ways they all perpetuated a uniquely American trait—that of taking reality and transforming it into abstraction without altogether losing the original subject on which the abstraction was based.
Because the American modernists chose a less obvious form of abstraction, their art work is distinct from the early European Cubists and this paper is an investigation of how and why that difference exists. Since there is a noticeable difference between the art of both continents it becomes interesting to speculate about why that difference exists.
“If you want to know why a certain kind of thing happened in a certain kind of case, you must begin by asking, ‘What did you expect?’ You must consider what the normal kind. Only then, if the thing that happened in this case was exceptional, should you try to explain it by appeal to exceptional conditions.” (R. G. Collingwood,
Why didn’t the modern art movement in Europe with its headquarters in Paris simply spread to America in its original form? The American artists who either visited or lived in Paris at the time of the Fauves, the Cubists and Futurists were aware of the latest avant-garde developments and knew the artists who represented the latest movements. You would expect to see American versions of Cubism or Futurism, art works that were made up of fragmented or intersecting planes, a multiplicity of view points, the flattening of the picture plane, the dynamics of forces pushing and pulling against one another. According to this expectation, the art history books ought to be filled with reproductions of the works of famous American Cubists, Fauves and Futurists. But American artists like Marin, Dove, Hartley and others who lived in Paris at the time of the explosion of modern art responded to the European avant-garde in a very different manner.
To them the new art they saw in Paris around 1904-14 represented possibilities of new and undreamed-of liberties that could be taken with the painted image. It was the freedom of expression released from representational imagery inherent in European avant-garde art that attracted them rather than the styles that that freedom engendered.
What does American art from the period in question look like? I dislike making generalizations that encompass all of the work of the American modernists, but there are a sufficient number of similarities amongst that body of work to justify the attempt.
Like the Cubists, the American modernists abandoned the principles of natural perspective, scale, proportion and rendering with shade and shadow. They adopted the cubist treatment of the canvas surface as an area in which all parts played an important role in the overall composition. The American artist, Charles Sheeler describes the moment of recognition for him that paintings were not simply a matter of an object against a background, an understanding that came to all the American artists when they saw the work of the Cubists.
“Now we began to realize that forms could be placed with consideration for their relationship to all the other forms in a picture, not merely to those adjacent. We began to understand that a picture could be assembled arbitrarily with a concern for design and that the result could be outside time, place, or momentary considerations.” (Charles Sheeler).
The works of the American artists are primarily composed of simple large shapes and undulating curves which express a feeling of power and energy. The images depicted are usually recognizable and no attempt is made to disguise them or fragment them. The images are intact and dominate the surface in an almost frontal attack position, where as Cubist works are like an orchestration of facetted shapes. The Cubists freed the American artists from the realistic rendering of objects but the American artists took from that freedom not the destruction or fragmentation of the image but rather only the underlying principles of abstraction. With that in mind, they could then dispense with the inhibiting constraint of realistic art and heighten the expressive aspect of their work.
Titles in American art work are an important link between the heightened sensation of experience through the use of abstraction and the message to the viewer of just what sensation was experienced. No matter how non-objective a work of art might look, its title revealed the meaning. For instance, you might look at an early painting by Arthur Dove and think it entirely without ties to the world of appearance simply a composition of shapes with saw toothed edges arranged in rows of diminishing size. Then upon reading the title, “Team of Horses”, you discover the work should be understood as a visual translation of the power and energy of the team and the sensation of plowing a field. The repetitive motion of the plow blades, the cultivated rows receding into the distance and each pull of the team turning the soil under the blades invites one to participate in the experience. What you learn is that this is not a picture of a team of horses in the field. The announcement given by the artist that you should be prepared for an unexpected experience when looking at this picture is the fact that it is an abstraction and not a realistic picture. This is what is meant by saying that abstraction enhances the emotive power of painting for Americans of this time. Unlike the Europeans who had reduced the world of phenomena to interesting patterns, there was a dialogue between the artist and his subject, a communication in which the viewer was expected to participate. The Americans found new ways to communicate their experiences to give the viewer a picture of what and how they as artists saw the world.
“I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprized into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers” (Georgia O’Keeffe).
The thread that connects American artists to each other is their depiction of nature: not what it looks like outside the window, but the emotional involvement with the forces of nature.
“Yes I could paint a cyclone . . . I would show the repetition and convolutions of the rage of the tempest. I would paint the wind, not a landscape chastized by the cyclone.” (Arthur Dove).
“There is nothing that so sets all things at peace with me as a communion with Nature.”(Marsden Hartley).
The biggest difference, however which resulted in the divergent paths of European and American art was the way in which abstraction was used. Abstraction in American art allowed for concentration, distillation and enhancement of objects and depicted them as felt experiences. The Europeans on the other hand, concentrated on abstraction based on formal properties of art: composition, shape, form and color.
How did the Americans use abstraction in this way? A particular scene—rolling hills, broad expanses, the shape of a mountain top—would become the catalyst of the painting and in that painting the rolling or undulating feeling of the hills was exaggerated, simplified and became the prime focus of the work. Or the space that attracted the artist was rendered as felt experience, or the shape of a mountain became a calligraphic line full of movement and tension. Since the tie of nature was the underlying subject of the work and what they wanted to communicate to the viewer, they needed to retain a partial resemblance to the actual scene in order to speak to the viewer, to say, “See—this is what caught my attention and now I want you to see it too—not as what it looks like—Farmer Brown’s field—but see it instead as sinuous shapes melting into and transforming into other shapes”. This is a felt experience that the artist wanted to capture on canvas. The Cubist might look at the same field, see the same interesting conformation of hills and in a more rational manner transform Farmer Brown’s field into a composition of cones, spheres, and cylinders.
The divergent ways of using abstraction resulted in very different expectations when looking at the art work of both continents. In an American work one doesn’t look for a painting of Farmer Brown out in his field even though the field and the plow might be present in the work. It is the expressive quality of the work that is important: it is what it reveals about nature that is the focus. At the same time, one shouldn’t try to unscramble a cubist portrait of Monsieur Kahnweiler, for instance in the hopes of discovering what he was like. What he felt and thought, or how he behaved is incidental to the main purpose of the portrait, which is the contemplation of shapes and planes and the working out of color harmonies or theories.
“The plastic virtues: purity, unity, and truth, keep nature in subjugation.” (Guillaume Apollinaire,