American art: The Twentieth Century

Among early 20th-century American sculptors Paul Bartlett, Karl Bitter, Frederick MacMonnies, George Barnard, and Lorado Taft exhibited a continuing conflict between naturalistic and idealized modes of representation. A significant cultural development of the era was the founding and expansion of American museums, whose collections were important to the art student and public alike. Under the impetus of new techniques of reproduction, the art of illustration flourished. The work of Edwin Abbey, Arthur Frost, and Howard Pyle was outstanding, appearing in Harper's and numerous other illustrated magazines and books.

Most importantly, in the 20th cent. American art turned to the exploitation of new techniques and new modes of expression. The functional design aesthetic of the machine strongly influenced all the arts. Meanwhile, the development of photography forced a reevaluation of the representational nature of painting, and the formal and expressive capacities of modern European art opened fresh fields for the American artist.

Early in the century a vigorous movement toward realism in subject matter and freedom in technique was headed by Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks. With William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and others, they formed the Eight, a group also known as the Ash-can School. They sought to communicate something of the reality of everyday life through art. At the same time, Alfred Stieglitz offered America early glimpses of fauve and cubist work from Europe and exhibited abstract paintings by such Americans as Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin at his revolutionary 291 Gallery for contemporary photographs and paintings.

The full force of European modernism was presented to shocked Americans in the famous Armory Show of 1913 in New York City, which was organized by such American artists as Arthur B. Davies, and Walt Kuhn. Under the influence of this exhibition, the early work of such Americans as Joseph Stella, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Demuth, and Stuart Davis revealed new abstract tendencies. George Bellows and Rockwell Kent remained popular realists, and Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield developed a more poignant and intensely personal realism. John Marin caught the imposing breadth of nature in his watercolors, while Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler combined realism with varying degrees of precise formal design.

Meanwhile, Peter Blume, Ivan Albright, and Edwin Dickinson developed differing and complex realist and surrealist styles. A chauvinistic espousal of the American scene flourished under Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood in the early 1930s, while the same decade and the 1940s saw the rise of a more socially conscious realistic art in the work of Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Jacob Lawrence, Isabel Bishop, and Raphael and Moses Soyer. Several years later this social awareness was given bitter expression in the paintings of Jack Levine.

Government sponsorship of the arts during the years of the Great Depression under the Dept. of the Treasury's Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration enabled many artists to continue working, embellishing many public buildings with murals and creating smaller works for display in public institutions. The Farm Security Administration supported the photographic documentation of rural America, a project that employed a number of outstanding photographers and resulted in a moving portrait of America in crisis. World War II brought an influx of European painters who were to influence the course of American art. They included Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy.

A continuing realistic tradition in American sculpture produced works in traditional styles during the 1920s and 30s. Among these are Gutzon Borglum's enormous Mt. Rushmore monument, the classicizing figures of Paul Manship, and Mahonri Young's naturalistic athletes and laborers. Nonetheless, the dominant tendency of national sculpture was toward abstract design and expressive form, a trend to which William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, and, later, Leonard Baskin contributed figurative work. Alexander Calder pioneered in the use of mobile welded metal forms, adding motion as a new dimension in sculpture.

In painting from 1945–60 the work of all but the most intensive realists, such as Andrew Wyeth, tended increasingly toward abstraction. Such artists as Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Helen Frankenthaler developed and employed abstraction in works of highly personal symbolic content, while painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and Franz Kline created a bold and unique imagery that made American painting a dominant influence in world art (see abstract expressionism). In sculpture of the 1940s and 50s the free play of abstract forms in light and space and the use of new materials were vigorously exploited by David Smith, Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi, and Richard Lippold.

The pop art movement of the 1950s and 60s utilized an aesthetic based on the mass-produced artifacts of urban culture, rejecting the concepts of beauty and ugliness. Its major practitioners included Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Other nonobjective styles of painting and sculpture flourished concurrently with pop art during the 1960s, including op art, minimalism, and color-field painting.

No single school or style has dominated American art in the latter half of the 20th cent., as artists have sought numerous avenues of individual expression. Sculptural abstraction was developed in individual directions by John Chamberlain, Eva Hess, Carl Andre, Louise Nevelson, and Tony Smith; minimalist sculpture in particular was developed by Donald Judd. Postmodern developments in painting and sculpture include photorealism, conceptualism, neoexpressionism, assemblage, land art, and performance and process art (see performance art; see also contemporary art).

The ascendancy of women and minority artists since the 1970s has been marked by essentialism, the assertion of the artist's distinctive heritage or social circumstance, favoring a point of view typically presented as outside the mainstream of contemporary art. Imagery suggestive of female anatomy and sexuality has been central to the works of Judy Chicago; an awareness of stereotypes of African-American women has informed drawings and installations by Adrian Piper. Jenny Holzer in her work has made extensive use of the printed word.

No single trend can be said to have dominated American art in the closing decades of the 20th cent. However, in general, American art in the 1980s and 90s saw an increased occurrence of words as statement and image as well as a widened use of photography, collage, and a variety of other media. Also characterizing these decades was eclecticism in both materials and imagery, combinations of painting and sculpture in single works, a trend toward use of the ironic, a resurgance of realism, and a heightened use of borrowings from other periods and works of art.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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