American Art of Our Century

By Lloyd Goodrich; John I. H. Baur | Go to book overview

7 precisionists

In 1861 Gustave Courbet had urged his students to paint "railway stations, engine houses, mines and factories. These are the saints and miracles of the nineteenth century." But it was to be half a century later, and more than a century after the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, before the tremendous innovations of the machine age began to be used by modern artists--cubists, constructivists, and futurists. Such fundamental changes in the structure of society take time to be assimilated into art. In 1910 the Italian futurists still seemed revolutionary in proclaiming: "We must draw inspiration from the tangible miracles of contemporary life, from the iron network of speed encircling the earth. . . ." Reacting against cubism's limited subjects, the futurists glorified mechanization, dynamism, speed, and violence. Theirs was a highly conscious movement, delighting in manifestoes and public demonstrations. In 1912 they invaded Paris with an exhibition which was afterwards shown widely on the Continent. Invited to take part in the Armory Show, they insisted on separate galleries with their own box office--a demand which naturally was refused. Not until the San Francisco Exposition of 1915 was their work seen here as a group.

The United States of these years could be called a futurist country, building its skyscrapers and automobiles and pioneer planes, but its technology was considerably more advanced than its art. The dynamism of machine-age America had found little reflection in established art. Paradoxically, it had been most nearly expressed by French and Spanish Cubism, Russian constructivism, and Italian futurism. Our most spectacular city, New York, had been pictured only by a few impressionists like Hassam, or by the romantic realists of the Eight, who had focused on its human aspects. But the American modernists who began to paint New York about 1912, Weber, Marin, Walkowitz, and Stella, were intoxicated by the city itself, a living organism--the upward thrust of skyscrapers, the sweep of great bridges, the kaleidoscope of night lights. They pictured these things not by literal representation but in the language of modernism. It was Weber in his cubistic compositions, Marin and Walkowitz in their expressionist watercolors, and Stella in his futurist fantasies, who first embodied in nonrepresentational form the essential energies of twentieth- century America.

Although one might expect futurism to appeal especially to Americans, it actually had only one out-and-out exponent in this country, Joseph Stella. Italian-born, living here since youth, he had already been fascinated by the steel mills of Pittsburgh before he returned to Italy in 1909. But it was in Paris in 1912 that he became involved in futurism and met its Italian leaders, probably during their exhibition. "When in 1912 I came back to New York," he wrote later, "I was thrilled to find America so rich with so many new motives to be translated into a new art. Steel and electricity had created a new world." Stella responded at once with a series of large futurist compositions, culminating in the five great panels of New York Interpreted (now in the Newark Museum), among the most remarkable imaginative visions of the modern city. The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme is a later version of one of these panels. Of his first essay on this subject, in 1918, Stella wrote with characteristic flamboyance: "Upon the swarming darkness of the night, I rung all the bells of alarm with the blaze of electricity scattered in lightnings down the oblique cables, the dynamic pillars of my composition, and to render more pungent the mystery of the metallic apparition, through the green and the red glare of the signals I excavated here and there caves as subterranean passages to infernal recesses."

The United States of the machine age was pic

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