Form and Color in American Art
1900 to 1925
With Americans who had trained in Europe teaching the next generation of artists, study abroad was no longer foreordained. Americans instead orchestrated new educational opportunities, both at home and abroad. Artists like Patrick Henry Bruce and Max Weber persuaded Henri Matisse to open a Paris school from 1908 to 1911, for example. Exhibition venues for American and European modernism emerged in cities like New York, as did new illustrated publications, and critics struggled to catch up. By focusing on innovative compositional strategies, and considering the ways that various media including sculpture, photography, and painting informed one another, this exhibition examines some of the ways that American artists shaped original contributions to modernism.
Selections from the exhibition:
Reckoning with Cézanne and Matisse
Patrick Henry Bruce studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri in New York before settling in Paris, where he was among the first students to enroll in painting and sculpture classes with Henri Matisse in 1908. Like many other American artists, he was introduced to the work of the recently deceased Paul Cézanne by way of Matisse. For several years, Bruce applied himself to the structural analysis of color, as this small still life from the spring of 1912 demonstrates. While his brushwork obviously imitated the faceted strokes of Cézanne, his palette suggested "the lessons of Renoir" an artist with whom American art critics were more familiar.
Towards Geometric Abstraction
Late in life, Patrick Henry Bruce destroyed all of the canvases he had painted between late 1912 and 1915, the period when he associated closely with French artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay. This makes it difficult to chart his artistic evolution from Plums to Composition II, one of a series of six paintings from circa 1916. Surviving correspondence from a fellow artist suggests that he had begun painting from photographs in 1914. Indeed, the prominence of black and white in Composition II certainly suggests a photographic intervention; in their emphatic flatness these passages show Bruce playfully revoking volumetric suggestiveness. Exhibited in 1917 at New York's Modern Gallery, Composition II was purchased in 1918 by collector Katherine S. Dreier.
Photography: A “Complete Uniqueness of Means”
Briefly serving as an x-ray technician in the Army Medical Corps from 1918 to 1919, Paul Strand believed in the photographic medium's capacity to surpass, in delicate finish, even the most accomplished draftsman: "This means a real respect for the thing in front of him, expressed in terms of . . . a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of the human hand." With prints like Wire Wheel Strand advanced his case for a "straight photography." Here, the spokes of the automobile wheel, intensely illuminated from behind and slightly out of focus, dematerialize, appearing almost as the cast shadow of the wheel. The body of the car reads as a matte surface ripe with tonal bloom, while the headlight, its function inverted, captures and refracts the silhouettes of skyscrapers beyond.
An Art of Transformation
Trained as an architect in Germany, Oscar Bluemner emigrated to the United States in the 1890s, working as a draftsman for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After abandoning architecture, Bluemner embarked upon an artistic self-education, heading back to Europe and studying the landscapes of Vincent van Gogh. Upon his return to America, Bluemner stripped and repainted much of the work he had produced in 1911 and 1912. Landscape with Arched Trees embodies Bluemner's mature style as it was formulated by 1916. He believed that while subject matter was irrelevant, it was impossible for an artist to deny a connection to the material world, writing, "Thus a landscape, as a motive for expression, undergoes a free transformation from objective reality to a subjective realization of personal vision."
“Distinctly Modern” in Three Dimensions
Chicago-born John Storrs traveled to Europe to apprentice in the studio of leading French figurative sculptor Auguste Rodin. But Storrs would soon diverge from Rodin's expressive realism to make his reputation as a cubist sculptor. He characterized his three-dimensional work as premised on "significant elimination and abstract form." For some contemporaries, Storrs was seen as the embodiment of a "modern primitive" whose work possessed the "rugged expressiveness of Gothic form." For others, the application of paint to terracotta in works like The Dancer marked him as distinctly modern at the same time that he was consistent with tradition: "John Storrs asks of polychromia the same that the old masters demanded, the firm and subtle linking of values."
“Logic in the Construction of Form”
A Polish sculptor who immigrated to the United States in 1914, Elie Nadelman was soon introduced to an American audience through an exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. A stylized drawing such as this one demonstrates the artist's imperative to form as a function of self-imposed constraints. "I employ no line other than the curve, which possesses freshness and force," Nadelman wrote. Labeled "Hellenistic," he was perceived as a classical artist for his commitment to just such firm aesthetic principles. But, like Storrs, Nadelman existed at the seam between primitive and classical modes of expression; the former was often held up as the quality to which modernists should aspire, but, in reality, it was through emphasizing continuity with the latter (and thus circumventing the Post-Impressionist fray) that they most successfully advanced their cause.