lude to Katherine Dreier's non-profit Societe Anonyme gallery, which opened in a New York brownstone in 1920, and to A. E. Gallatin Gallery of Living Art, which opened at New York University in 1927. Two years later the Museum of Modern Art, the brainstorm of a cartel of society women, opened to the public. The Whitney Museum of American Art began operations in 1931, financed by the wealthy sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and Solomon R. Guggenheim made his collection public in the Museum of Non-Objective Art in 1939.
The sense that Paris had become an "onlooker" to events in New York dawned on different observers at different moments. In a 1931 essay on the "most beautiful spectacle in the world," Fernand Léger exclaimed how Manhattan, that "daring vertical new continent," prefigured a whole new egalitarian world marked by a "new religion" consecrated to business and technology. "New York and the telephone came into the world on the same day, on the same boat, to conquer the world. Mechanical life is at its apogee here." Picturing the mechanical was Léger's forte, but he could not believe that any artist would ever successfully describe New York: "It is madness to think of employing such a subject artistically. One admires it humbly, and that's all." 29
So who would dare to paint New York? Léger and Matisse would not even try it, and Mondrian's vision of the city, however compelling, was largely continuous with his vision of Paris and London. It was Georgia O'Keeffe who would paint New York, depicting its towering buildings in a legible, lyrical way that reciprocated the democratized aspect of the city while evincing the limitless aspirations embodied in its newfound imago: the skyscraper.
This is a revised version of an essay published in Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Winter/Spring 1991). I wish again to acknowledge Carol Willis' help with that article. Reprinted with permission by Anna C. Chave.
According to William E. Leuchtenberg, "In 1914 the United States was a debtor nation; American citizens owed foreign investors three billion dollars. By the end of 1919 the United States was a creditor nation, with foreigners owing American investors nearly three billion dollars. In addition the United States had loaned over ten billion dollars to foreign countries, mostly to carry on the war, in part for postwar reconstruction. These figures represent one of those great