AMERICAN MODERNISTS: Breaking the Mold

Article excerpt

In 1915, New York City was a city on the rise. Its skyscrapers soared higher than any other buildings in the world, manifesting the surging ambition of a young country that was transforming itself with technological prowess. Europe was at war while American industry was generating jobs and products that promised to improve daily life. But American inventiveness extended beyond industry. In New York City, a handful of artists were striving to create American modern art.

This circle included the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who described the endeavor as a quest for "the Great American Thing."

O'Keeffe's phrase is the title of both a book and an exhibition: "The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935." Organized by the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, and the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, the exhibition will be an inaugural exhibition for the Figge from September 17, 2005, to January 1, 2006. The Tacoma Art Museum will present the exhibition from February 4 to May 21, 2006. Both the Figge and the Tacoma Art Museum are newly rebuilt institutions and share the ambition to provide their regions with exhibitions of national importance.

Published in 1999, the book and its companion exhibition present an overlooked chapter in the history of American modernism. Between the wars, artists on both sides of the Atlantic were creating a new visual language celebrating an America not of virgin wilderness but of ingenuity and invention. They used tools of the new styles-cubism, expressionism, and dadaism-to render America's sinuous, glistening, engineered world, from spark plugs and dynamos to factories, suspension bridges, and skyscrapers.

"The prevailing meta-narrative is that modern art starts in the United States after World War Two," says Wanda M. Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University, author of the book and exhibition cocurator. "We want to reestablish the early story of modernism and the sense that New York had in the teens and twenties of rivaling Paris. The history of New York as an art capital starts here.

"These artists also created a certain identity for New York that we still depend upon as an index of its special-ness," continues Corn, "skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Broadway. They helped to index the highlights of a tour around Manhattan. It's what we all do when we go to New York."

The exhibition presents more than 130 paintings, photographs, and sculptures as well as related objects such as books, consumer products, and films of the era. "What is so appealing about the book and carried through in the exhibition is the relationship between art and what inspired it," says Linda Downs, director of the Figge Art Museum, who proposed transforming the book into an exhibition.

Drawing from the themes in Corn's book, the exhibition brings together the different currents of first-generation American modernism. Its sections comprise: "The Modernists in Formation," "Transatlantic Exchange," "Engineered America," "Jazz America," "Ancestral America," and "Spiritual America."

"The transatlantics saw America in the hard lines of skyscrapers and the shiny surfaces of art deco cocktail shakers," says Patricia McDonnell, exhibition cocurator and chief curator of the Tacoma Art Museum. "They believed American culture was defined by its brand-newness, engineering ingenuity, popular culture, and jazz. They appreciated America as bold and young, not mired in tradition."

Some American modernists looked homeward, to a native architecture of the practical, from factories, grain elevators, and barns to the artisanship of an early America, including plain folk art. They also turned to nature-but not as representational artists. Instead of painting grand vistas, they rendered close-up encounters with the sublime, using the tools of cubism and abstraction that they also applied to machines.

While American enterprises built skyscrapers, the headquarters of American modernism initially were the Manhattan galleries of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. …