A Century of American Art and Culture.
AMERICA entered the 20th century with a youthful confidence about its place in the world. The growth of big cities, spurred by the shift of populations from rural areas to urban centers and from Europe to the U.S., along with the advent of modern industry and transportation, were transforming America into a complex, diverse, and cosmopolitan nation during the Age of Confidence, 1900-19.
Artists responded to these profound changes in ways that were equally complex and diverse. Many painters, photographers, sculptors, and illustrators, as well as songwriters and filmmakers, celebrated the dynamism and novelty of the urban and industrial spectacle. The so-called Ashcan artists --including George Bellows, Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan--found inspiration in the daily lives and entertainments of ordinary Americans, while photographers such as Jessie Tarbox Beals, Arnold Genthe, and' Lewis Hine documented the opportunities and hardships encountered by new immigrant populations.
Others, such as painters Thomas Anshutz, Cecilia Beaux, Frank Benson, and Edmund Tarbell and photographers Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence White, turned away from the raucous energy and commercialism of the modern city to embrace private pleasures enjoyed in genteel, domestic settings. Still others--the pictorialist painters and photographers and aesthetic dancers such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis--invented symbolist and orientalist fantasies, while modernist artists like Arthur Dove, Joseph Stella, and Paul Strand embraced experimentation and abstraction to transform traditional subject matter into avant-garde statements of personal expression.
Jazz Age America, 1920-29. The U.S. emerged from World War I into an era of unparalleled social freedom, material prosperity, and mass communication. Much of the visual art of the 1920s reflects a fascination with advertising and consumer products and with the glamorous icons of America's first truly national popular culture: the flappers, nightclubs, jazz, skyscrapers, and movies.
The fashionable socialites and celebrities portrayed by Guy Pene du Bois, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., and Florine Stettheimer and photographed by Edward Steichen and James VanDerZee personified a new American dream of youthful sophistication, wealth, and leisure, a theme echoed in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos and the music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
Berenice Abbott, Louis Lozowick, and Georgia O'Keeffe depicted the city at night as a place of romance and mystery, while the stylized decoration of Art Deco landmarks like William Van Alen's Chrysler Building and Donald Deskey's interiors for Radio City Music Hall gave expression to the unbridled opulence of the period.
The search for cultural identity had a counterpart in the work of African-American artists, writers, and performers such as Josephine Baker, Aaron Douglas, Alain Locke, and Nancy Prophet, who gave forceful expression through the Harlem Renaissance movement to a new sense of pride, opportunity, and desire for self-determination. Other artists, disillusioned by the brutality and waste of war, envisioned a world based on rationality and science. The playful experimentation of early modernism gave way to the classicizing abstraction of Precisionism. Charles Demuth's "My Egypt" (1927), Elsie Driggs' "Pittsburgh" (1927), Paul Outerbridge's "Marmon Crankshaft" (1923), and Charles Sheeler's 1927 photographs of the Ford factory complex at River Rouge, Detroit, exalt machine forms and industrial structures as emblems of efficiency, purity, and order.
The 1920s also saw a contrasting movement on the part of modernist artists such as O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, John Marin, Agnes Pelton, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston to seek sensual and spiritual inspiration and refuge from the increasing mechanization of American culture in the imperturbable cycles of nature, expressed in images of the land and the human body.
America in crisis, 1930-39. On Oct. 29, 1929, the New York stock market crashed and, along with it, the prosperity and euphoria of the Jazz Age. The Regionalist artists--Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood--championed a nationalist art of renewal and reaffirmation that celebrated agrarian values and folk traditions, values and themes drawn from the collective national past. Federal programs promoted the creation of a socially meaningful art by funding public murals and works projects, theater and dance programs, and documentary archives of folk music and decorative arts. Modem dancers such as Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham developed choreography based on indigenous themes.
Under the auspices of the Farm Securities Administration, photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee created an indelible record of the human and economic toll of the Depression. The urban American Scene painters--Isabel Bishop, Reginald Marsh, and Raphael and Isaac Soyer--and photographers like Walter Rosenblum and Doris Ulmann found renewal and stability in images of contemporary everyday life.
Other artists turned away from the turmoil of the 1930s to posit alternative realities. Architects and industrial designers utilized streamlined forms to suggest the promise of new technological progress and efficiencies. Hollywood invited moviegoers to escape, if only briefly, to a world of luxury and romance, personified by glamour couples such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and eyepopping spectacle, exemplified by the drillteam choreography of Busby Berkeley.
The American Abstract Artists group modeled a utopian vision of universal harmony using a geometric, nonobjective art of order and stability, devoid of references to the real world. Other abstractionists, such as Alexander Calder and Stuart Davis, introduced a bimorphic, associative, and playful imagery. By the late 1930 and early 1940s, a new generation of abstract artists, including Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, were beginning to explore the expressive potential of more open, gestural configurations and archetypal themes.
America in the 1940s. With democracy threatened on all sides, the search for American roots was transmuted into an adamant defense of those native values most endangered by war in Europe--freedom, democracy, and community. Many artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell, Ben Shahn, and Grant Wood, created overtly propagandistic posters, illustrations, and paintings.
The movie industry responded to the war effort with zeal, issuing "Victory" newsreels and documentary training films by well-known directors like Frank Capra, while Life magazine reported the war from Europe and the Pacific as documented by photojournalists such as Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith, who were working on the front lines.
At home, popular music, films, and the Broadway theater rallied the nation to a sense of common purpose. Musicals and ballets such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" (1946) and Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring" (1944) brought formal innovation to a fascination with the country's pioneer past.
The arrival of European artists, designers, and architects driven into exile by the war and the return of American expatriates shifted the geographic center of the art world to New York. The emergence of the new generation of painters and sculptors who would later be called Abstract Expressionists--de Kooning, Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and David Smith--made it the cultural center as well and, for the first time, brought American art worldwide acclaim.
After World War II, the U.S. faced new opportunities and challenges brought by its status as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. The trauma of the Holocaust and the atomic age was given voice by the disillusioned protagonists of novels and plays by John Hersey, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams as well as the cynical heroes of film noir and the disruptive energy of be-bop, and was mirrored in the gritty realism of Robert Frank's photographs.
Military victory brought material prosperity and unleashed the pent-up desires of young families for new housing, mobility, and modern conveniences. Architects and designers responded by exploiting new materials and technologies to create high-qualify, affordable homes and objects for the mass market that altered the social dynamics of families and cities in ways that once again would redefine American cultural identity in the second half of the century.
"The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000," an innovative two-part exhibition, explores the evolution of the American identity as seen through the eyes of the nation's artists and examines the impact of such forces as immigration, technology, and the mass media on art and culture. The exhibition, which will fill the entire Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, for nine months, is comprised of more than 1,200 works of painting, sculpture, and photography, with related materials in architecture, decorative arts, music, dance, literature, and film culled from the Whitney's Permanent Collection, private collections, and public institutions around the country.
Part I, which is on view until Aug. 22, traces the nation's artistic developments from 1900 to 1950. Part II, covering the years 1950 to the 1990s, will be presented from Sept. 26 to Feb. 13, 2000. USA Today will feature art from Part II in the September 1999 issue.
Barbara Haskell is curator of prewar art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and curator of Part I of the exhibition, "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000."