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Tag Archives: 20th Century American Art

I will leave it to others to figure out whether or not Norman Rockwell was an artist or an illustrator. I don’t particularly care because his work is etched into my memory regardless. His images were simply everywhere. We always seemed to have copies of the Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life laying around the house. His work was as recognizable as any face, like a signature on some Great American Manifesto that captured everything we believed we were.

I was blissfully unaware of any real problems in our country when I was a kid. Despite living on the outskirts of a racially divided city, everyone who touched my life in those early years seemed to be really white. There were no minorities in my school. Our TV poured out My Three Sons and Dick Van Dyke and John Wayne movies, in black and white. I’m sure I watched Walter Cronkite every night but nothing really registered, not the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the riots in Detroit and elsewhere. I really thought I lived in a country filled with Rockwell characters fishing, going to the doctor, learning to play musical  instruments, falling in love, or chasing their dogs around the back yard.

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

I do remember, however, the night Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. I vividly recall staring up at the moon in a clear, sky thinking about an empty universe and time and distance. I was 11 years old but I still think I grasped the gravity of it all. I’m starting to think that reaching the moon was our zenith, that we’ll never come together to meet big challenges like that, ever again.

The Final Impossiblity: Man's Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969).

The Final Impossiblity: Man’s Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969)

I was quite astonished to find out, when I finally looked  into Rockwell’s body of work, that he delved deeply into the racial problems that infested our history. The only black people I recall in Rockwell’s work were waiters and baggage handlers in train stations. His political work was published but if I saw it, it just didn’t register because I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. It was powerful stuff and I’m sure some people found it inspiring and others were pissed off by it. Either way, paintings like The Problem We All Live With, which shows us a little black girl walking to school in the company of federal marshals, depicts an American reality I can’t even being to understand, one that probably resembles my country more than my memory does.

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

Whether Rockwell was just an illustrator or a “real” artist doesn’t really matter to me, although I think the power of Problem or the wit of The Connoisseur (below)  are well beyond the reach a majority of people who’ve ever picked up a paintbrush. His work has touched the lives of maybe three generations of Americans. A lot of people seem to be nostalgic for Rockwell’s America these days because it represents the best things we have always wanted to believe about ourselves. We no longer live in that America. I’m starting to believe that it never really existed in the first place.

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

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Note: I’ve been away from this blog for nearly five months. The reasons behind my absence will be the subject of a future post but had nothing to do with anything sinister like illness or incarceration. Truth be told, I was utterly sick of the internet for reasons entirely political. At any rate, my sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing again. 

Today is the birthday of one on the most influential people in the history of American Art, a man who established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost photographers, helped drag a reluctant America into Modernism, and launched the careers of some of the 20th Century’s revered painters. He was a study in paradoxes. He was a nurturing tyrant. He worked tirelessly to promote “his” artists, privately relishing the role while claiming to detest it. He was of the leisure class yet feigned poverty. He enjoyed the uncritical admiration of a posse of followers while being passionately despised by his enemies. He spoke engagingly of the spiritual power of love but was a bit of a philandering pig.  His life story is a fascinating mix of privilege,  vision and dedication, situational ethics, and luck.

That man is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who was born on New Year’s Day in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first child of German immigrant parents. His father was a successful merchant who provided his children with first-rate European educations. One of his twin brothers went on to become a chemist and educator; the other a physician. Alfred himself abandoned his scientific education (his father wanted him to study engineering) and, on the back of his generous allowance, bummed around Europe for a few years and became a world-class photographer. Between 1887 and 1907, in Europe and, after 1890, in New York, Stieglitz created a body of work that remains as one of the most groundbreaking and enduring in the field of American Art.

Stieglitz-Winter

Winter- Fifth Avenue (Alfred Stieglitz, 1893)

It was along about this time that Stieglitz began promoting photography as a “Capital A” art, along side painting and sculpture, an idea that the Art Establishment found pretty laughable at the time. Banding together with other influential photographers of the day, he founded a movement, The Photo-Secession, and a gallery similarly named, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would soon be known by it’s address, 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as simply “291.” That gallery, and the journal published there known as “Camera Work,” were noteworthy in two major respects; they established photography as a fine art in the minds of most (but certainly not all) art cognoscenti of the time and, perhaps more importantly, they served as a beachhead through which European Modernism invaded America.  Stieglitz soon began to exhibit and write about painting and sculpture in addition to photography. By the time 291 closed in 1917, it had exhibited European artists who were quite unknown in the US at the time but are now included among the most beloved artists ever. The exhibit list includes heavyweights like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rodin, and Duchamp.

A number of American photographers and artists gained much of their early notoriety through 291 and through Stieglitz’s two subsequent galleries The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Photographers Edward Steichen (with whom Stieglitz founded 291) and Paul Strand can both trace their roots back to 291. In Stieglitz’s later years, An American Place featured the work of the likes of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston.

While Stieglitz’s contributions to the development of American Photography were quite impressive, it was his transition to painting that may have left the most lasting imprint on American Art. No, Stieglitz himself did not paint, but he adopted a group of relatively obscure American painters in his 291 days and spent the rest of his life promoting their work, largely at the expense of his own photography. Among the members of the Stieglitz Circle are Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and maybe most notably Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

O’Keeffe’s relationship to Stieglitz is the stuff of legend, the fodder for several books and major portions of the many biographies of both artists. O’Keeffe was laboring as an art instructor at a tiny Texas college when she came to the attention of Stieglitz through a mutual friend on, oddly enough, January 1st, 1916. The circumstances of this discovery are immortalized in the prologue of the book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler and repeated just about everywhere anyone has written about the pair. The mutual friend, Anita Pollitzer, a photographer known more for her role in the Stieglitz – O’Keeffe connection than for anything else, took some drawings O’Keeffe has mailed her to show Stieglitz. As mythology has it, Stieglitz immediately felt an attraction to the unseen artist, uttering the words “Finally, a woman on paper.” Summarizing the progression of events that followed, he exhibited the drawings, met O’Keeffe, fell in love with her (despite being married since 1894) and pursued her relentlessly. Within a year or two, they were living scandalously together and would remain a couple (despite frequent infidelity on both their parts) until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. It’s all there at the core of the history of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, a fascinating story far richer and more complex than I could ever cover here.

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

I probably know more about Alfred Stieglitz than about any other figure in American Art. I’ve studied his images and read a number of biographies, watched his American Masters episode on PBS, looked at his work in several museums. It was he who led me from a rather parochial interest in photography to a much broader interest in art and an appreciation of painting. Had I not chanced upon a biography in a used book store and recognized his name, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words today. For better or worse, Stieglitz was and remains one of my inspirations.

Lake George (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1922)

Lake George (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922)

I’ve developed this annoying habit of using New Year’s Day to look back on the many roads I’ve traveled and think about how it was I got to wherever it is that I find myself. I think the people close to me find it tedious but I find it refreshing and sometimes inspiring. I find it appropriate to celebrate the beginning of 2013 by reflecting on the role Stieglitz had on me on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth. Thank you, Alfred, for all that you have given me. You were deeply flawed, contradictory, and often insufferable. In other words, you were human.

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Opinions vary on the legacy of the late Andrew Wyeth, the American Realist painter who was born on this day in 1917. He was among the most popular artists of the 20th Century and his painting Christina’s World, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is considered an icon of American Art.

Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)

Despite his popularity, the “Art World” isn’t quite as enamored of his work. He hit is creative stride as Abstract Expressionism was becoming the dominant movement in American art and a number of contemporary critics consider his work overly quaint and sentimental.  I, for one, am moved by Wyeth’s work; it’s sparseness, it’s economy, the melancholy feeling it invokes. Christina’s World isn’t really one of my favorites. I much prefer the bleak landscapes and undecorated interiors that Wyeth produced throughout his career. His Master Bedroom, which I’ve shared here before, exemplifies this style but is really only the most popular of a number of master works in a similar mood.

Wind from the Sea (Andrew Wyeth, 1947)

We record the world as we see it. Some of us see sunshine and puppies, some see storm clouds on the horizon. Wyeth’s vision was somewhere in the middle. He saw beauty in simplicity and austerity. His work teaches us that often times an artist can reveal more by showing less. It’s a lesson we can all profit from.

Camden Hills, Maine (Andrew Wyeth, Undated)

 

 

Every once in a while my meanderings on the internet amount to something beyond a mere waste of time. Today, I discovered an American Precisionist painter named Niles Spencer (1893 – 1952), a contemporary of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Spencer is so obscure outside the museum/gallery community that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry. You can find a brief biography of Spencer here.

Precisionism concerned itself with the geometry of urban and industrial landscapes and this is a subject I find myself drawn to all the time. Spencer’s work, at least that which I can locate, differs from other Precisionists in that it seems more abstract to me, emphasizing form in an almost Cubist manner. People don’t figure very prominently in Spencer’s work, not even as a suggestion. Even his still lifes  looked like an industrial skyline.

The Watch Factory (Niles Spencer, 1952)

Spencer’s The Watch Factory is his most well-known, or maybe least obscure image. It is stark and cold, bordering on unrecognizable as a human-made structure. It contrasts sharply with his early paintings, like Oguinquit, Maine. painted in 1919, which has more of an Impressionist feel to it.

Oguinquit, Maine (Niles Spencer, 1919)

Spencer was apparently much admired by critics and other artists but never achieved the success and notoriety enjoyed by other Precisionists. The sources I’ve found attribute this to his personality; he was far from gregarious and not much into self-promotion. Despite his status as an art-historical footnote, his work can be found in a number of major American museums, including The Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Phillips Collection, and numerous small museums scattered across the country. His work represents an important and lasting perspective on the American landscape and deserves a little more attention.

The Silver Tanks (Niles Spencer, 1949)

 

In my mind, the best thing about 20th Century American art was Edward Hopper. This is hardly a bold statement; Hopper had his detractors but he is generally included in the very top tier of American artists. Toward the end of his career (Hopper died in 1967), some art hipsters had begun to regard his work as too traditional, too pre-war to be cool, but he was, and remains, one of the most influential painters America has ever ever produced.

Just about everyone knows Hopper, if not by name than by the sight of his most recognizable painting; Nighthawks. It’s right up there with the pool-shooting dogs in terms of its connection to the American psyche and even people who have no affinity for art know it. A lot of people, however, would be shocked to learn that Elvis, Bogart, Marilyn Monroe,  and James Dean were not in the original image.

Nighthawks (Edward Hopper, 1942)

The lack of interaction among the characters in Nighthawks is Hopper’s signature. For me, the isolation and alienation inherent in Hopper’s work has always been its strongest feature because it mirrors so completely how my life had felt to me most of the time. This could just as easily be a couple of booths at the Texan on State Street in the wee hours of some morning when I was in my 20s, after the bars had closed down. There’s a listlessness about the characters, a lack of emotional connection. That couple may have met over drinks earlier are are just now settling into the understanding that they have nothing at all to talk about. I also find it significant that the place has no door. Read into that fact whatever you may.

A far more meaningful painting for me is Excursions Into Philosophy.

Excursions Into Philosophy (Edward Hopper, 1959)

This painting resonates with me at a number of levels. I return to it now and again to remind myself of the cloud of melancholia that I floated around in for all those years, just in case I get cocky about how good things are at the moment. I wonder if that cloud still lurks, around some corner somewhere or in a dusty box in the basement. I could tell you exactly what I see in Excursions but what’s the fun in that? It will likely speak to you in a totally different language if you listen carefully.

G. Roger Denson’s second essay on  Leftist political art covers the period from the end of the Second World War to the middle of the 1960s, an era of rapid political and cultural change.  His survey is world-wide and very thorough and I’ll limit my discussion to three strictly American aspects of it; Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and the treatment of Race in America.

I’m not sure that I buy into Denson’s contention that humanity was conscious of a radically changed world at the end of WWII. My parents and their siblings were of that generation and most were veterans and they fully expected things to return to normal after the war, albeit with better economic opportunities available. The gravity of the nuclear age would take awhile to dawn on them.

I don’t know if the things that happened in the 1930s and 40s, like the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking, were really all that new or if people just had better access to information. The Armenian Massacre, for which the word “genocide” was coined, dates back to 1915. The wholesale extermination of large numbers of people go way back in human history, but the technology to kill large numbers of people in a short time didn’t really develop until the 20th Century. Still, genocides with body counts in the tens of thousands date back to the 12th Century AD. China had it’s own massacre involving up to 800,000 victims in 1645, although it took ten days to pull off.

My belief is that humans have always been a brutal and vengeful lot but that we are the first among our kind to enjoy the 24-hour news cycle. If the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred today instead of in 1572, MSNBC would have a live feed and there would be videos all over Youtube. Our own massacres, and there were many, would be blacked out or sanitized in some way but likely still reported.

Still, even if rank-and-file Americans were only vaguely aware of how different our world became in 1945, we were profoundly changed nonetheless. Our politics became more reactionary, our culture more conformist (captured so elegantly in Rene Magritte’s painting below), and our fear of the political Left more paranoid. Realist and socially conscious art gave way to the first great Art Movement that was fully American: Abstract Expressionism.

Golconde (Rene Magritte - 1953)

I’ve never had much love for Abstract Expressionist art. No matter, I have to recognize it for what it was: a repudiation of modernism and realism which, so the theory goes, had failed to predict or prevent the horrible things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s and, even worse, had become mere propaganda in the hands of oppressive, anti-American governments. There’s some truth to this, although it’s hard to view American social realism in this light since it was pretty much swept aside in the McCarthy years of the early 1950s.

The work of the expressionists is described using words like freedom and spirituality. It was a perfect metaphor for the times. Here in America, we were so free that we could paint nothing at all and people would buy it. In Russia, they would burn things like that. The Nazis rounded up people who painted like that and sent them off to Auschwitz. We embraced expressionism.  It wasn’t political at all, so it didn’t offend anyone, at least politically.

No. 5 (Jackson Pollock - 1948)

I’ve stood in front of dozens of Pollocks, Gorkys, de Koonings, and Rothkos and taken them in for, well, minutes.

Untitled (Mark Rothko - 1953-54)

I confess that while I find some of them pleasant to look at and soothing in a strange way, I don’t get it. Some of them I find nervous and a little disturbing, especially the de Kooning below, one of a series of equally hideous, grotesque paintings.

Woman #3 (Willem de Kooning - 1953)

It’s evident that my distaste for this work betrays my ignorance about art, since the Pollock and the de Kooning are the two most expensive paintings ever sold, coming in at, respectively, $156.8 million and $154 million, adjusted for inflation. Richer, smarter people like this stuff, so it has to be good.

Just as Abstract Expressionism was spawned by earlier movements, Pop Art is the child of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art grew in response to the development of American consumer culture, although I can never quite figure out if Pop Artists are celebrating it or condemning it. Regardless, it’s far less humorless than Abstract Expressionism and more diverse, so diverse in fact that I’m not sure many of the artists we place in the Pop category really belong there.

Pop Art, to me, is pretty dull. I’ve written elsewhere that I’m no big fan of Andy Warhol, the one figure most associated with the movement. Warhol was no doubt enormously talented, but I’m thinking that his main talent was not as an artist but as a hustler who was constantly on the move for fame and money. He’s deified in the Art World but I find his work, in the main, incredibly unchallenging even by the low standards of the genre. Still, Warhol is a member of the $100 million club, along with Pollock and de Kooning, after his “Eight Elvises” sold for that sum at an auction in 2008.

Eight Evises (Andy Warhol - 1963)

The problem for me is not so much that Pop Art is vapid. I’m certainly not offended by Warhol’s empty celebrity silkscreens or his ridiculous soup cans. I don’t mind so much Jasper Johns’ flags or Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book excerpts. The problem is that it seems to me to be not so much playful but deeply cynical. I’m not sure what Warhol was trying to say with Eight Elvises, or even if he was trying to say anything at all. I am reminded of the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes and wonder if Pop Art was a product of enough people saying how great it was for enough time. It is now so deeply embedded in the Art World’s DNA that it’s never coming out.

In stark contrast to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art we have the art of race in American, exemplified by the works of Jacob Lawrence , Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden. When a generation of American blacks returned home from the war in 1945, they were disillusioned, even a little rebellious, about their subjugation by dominant white culture. They served their country alongside their white counterparts and they were no longer willing to live as a dominated subclass. The work of these African-American artists helped forge black identity in America and support a growing civil rights movement that still struggles for racial equality.

Sharecropper (Elizabeth Catlett - 1952)

It’s interesting to me that while mainstream art  in America during this period busied itself with rejecting or escaping the realities that confronted contemporary society, minority artists were reaching out to their people to foster a sense of pride and resilience in the face of adversity. I have to wonder what kind of society we might have if everyone had turned their attention to the pressing problems of the day instead of watching television and conducting air raid drills.

Nativity (Jacob Lawrence - 1954)

So there you have it, the snapshot of the State of American Art circa 1945 – 1966. Two very different trajectories leading us to two very different places. I look forward to find out where Denson is taking us next.