American Art of Our Century

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

6 pioneers of modernism: abstraction

In Paris, cubism had begun to evolve about 1908. By contrast with fauvism's expression of emotion through color and pattern, cubism was a search for new concepts of three-dimensional form. The object was analyzed into its geometric components, disintegrated, reassembled in new combinations, shown from different sides simultaneously. Subject matter was limited to the concrete and tangible, emotional content was avoided, color was subordinate and monochromatic. This early analytical phase lasted until about 1913, then flowered into the free, more chromatic inventions of synthetic cubism. In the meantime it had given birth to many other varieties of abstraction.

It had also produced its own revolts, such as Orphism, started by Robert Delaunay in 1912, which aimed at the utmost fullness of color and at pure abstraction, free from cubism's reminders of the object. Orphism in turn had a rival in Synchromism (meaning "with color"), launched in 1913 by two Americans in Paris, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Both were intelligent theorists, and they had an articulate champion in the latter's brother Willard Huntington Wright, a brilliant if dogmatic critic who pronounced their movement the culmination of Western art. It is true that their theories went beyond Orphism in analyzing the relation of color to form: particularly the fact that the warm colors (red, orange, yellow) appear to advance toward the eye, while the cool ones (blue, violet, blue-green) retreat, so that color produces sensations of projection and recession that can be used to build form. Their clear statement of this principle was a definite contribution to modern aesthetics. After at first applying it to recognizable figures, the two Synchromists moved toward pure abstraction in 1913. That year they held exhibitions in Munich and Paris, and engaged in a merry war with the Orphists. But their actual paintings were much like their rivals'--compositions of multicolored prisms and whirling disks. Later they created more original and complex design, as in Macdonald-Wright's Oriental of 1918. A year or so later, however, both of them abandoned abstraction and returned to the figure. They had developed a method, but not a content. Yet their theories had influenced other Americans--Andrew Dasburg, and Thomas H. Benton, who was then striving to reconcile Renaissance form with Synchromist color.

Orphism had a disciple in the former fauvist Patrick Henry Bruce, who remained in Paris until the 1930's. After his Orphist phase, Bruce went his own way. His great concern was abstract structure. Uncompromising in their clarity, his paintings with their angular geometric shapes and pure color were thoughtfully designed and strongly constructed, with the relations between forms finely felt. From pure abstraction Bruce returned to semi- abstraction based on specific motifs, such as the still life on a table in Painting. But he remained consistent in his devotion to architectonics. Agonizing over his pictures, he painted few of them and destroyed most.

In the United States there had been little abstract art before the Armory Show. The show, with its full representation of the cubists, gave impetus to abstraction, and for the next decade a number of Americans practiced it--Weber, Dove, Walkowitz, Hartley, Dasburg, William Zorach, Konrad Cramer, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Man Ray. Most of these Americans were less concerned with strictly formal


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American Art of Our Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Part One - 1900-1939 7
  • 1 - American Art in 1900 9
  • 2 - The Whitney Museum of American Art 12
  • 3 - The Eight and Other City Realists 20
  • 4 - Primitives 29
  • 5 - Pioneers of Modernism: Post-Impressionism and Expressionism 32
  • 6 - Pioneers of Modernism: Abstraction 42
  • 7 - Precisionists 50
  • 8 - Sculpture, 1910-1939 58
  • 9 - Representational Painting 67
  • 10 - The American Scene 84
  • 11 - The Social School 98
  • 12 - Fantasy 104
  • 13 - The Trend toward Abstraction 109
  • Part Two - 1940-1960 119
  • 14 - Romantic Realism 121
  • 15 - Traditional Sculpture 133
  • 16 - Precise Realism 138
  • 17 - Fantasy and Surrealism 148
  • 18 - Social Comment 157
  • 19 - Expressionism: Painting 169
  • 20 - Expressionism: Sculpture 190
  • 21 - Semi-Abstraction 197
  • 22 - Free-Form Abstraction: Painting 208
  • 23 - Free-Form Abstraction: Sculpture 230
  • 24 - Formal Abstraction: Painting 239
  • 25 - Formal Abstraction: Sculpture 252
  • Whitney Museum of American Art 265
  • Whitney Museum of American Art 266
  • Catalogue of the Collection 267
  • Index by Mediums 298
  • Exhibitions, 1914-1960 301
  • Books Published by the Whitney Museum of American Art 306
  • Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1956-1960 307


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