The American modernist movement of the early- to mid-20th century was as complex as it was dynamic. In part a reaction to the European avant-garde, and in part an attempt to establish a uniquely American aesthetic, modernism in America encompassed a wide array of subjects, styles, and philosophies. In discussing American modernism, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of defining it. American modernists shared with their European counterparts an interest in machines, urbanity, and an embrace of new technology (1). But American modernism, while undoubtedly influenced by the European avant-garde, simultaneously rejected their ideologies. American artists were committed to defining what they saw as a uniquely American form of modernism, separate from that of Europe. In fact, this search for artistic identity could be called “the primary cultural and critical issue of the Post-World War I era” (2).
Perhaps one of the best ways to understand American modernism is thorough some of the works of art that helped define the movement. Paul Strand’s 1923 “Akeley Motion Picture Camera,” Grant Wood’s 1930 “American Gothic,” Diego Rivera’s 1933 “Detroit Industry,” and the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows all embodied different facets of American modernism.
Paul Strand, a former student of socially progressive photographer Lewis Hine, not only managed to bridge the gap between photography and abstract modern art, but indeed helped shape the modernist aesthetic for decades. Like that of many of his modernist contemporaries, Strand’s work exemplified the quest for an American aesthetic as he “fought to free his art from Europe, from its suaveness and corruption” (3). Strand believed that only through “purity of use,” or “straight photography,” could the full potential of the medium be realized (4). His 1923 photograph “Akeley Motion Picture Camera” (pictured right) embodies not only his personal philosophy of straight photography, but it also illustrates American modernists’ preoccupation with machinery, technology, clarity and balance. This image is concerned with the formal elements of the machine, and venerates what Strand referred to as the new “God the Machine” (4). This image and other similar images by Strand were, simply put, “pure prayers to machinery” (3). Perhaps more importantly, these photographs helped to establish photography as a medium exceptionally suited to address the forms and textures of the modern machine age, (5) and “would lay the groundwork for the mainline modernist aesthetic values of photographic practice for nearly six decades” (4).
When discussing American modernism, one would be remiss to neglect the artistic counterbalance to urbanity, machines, and technology. American modernism, though primarily engaged with the machine age, also incorporated a more nostalgic rural narrative. The Regionalists, spearheaded by painters Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart Curry, and Grant Wood, sought to define American modernism, in contrast to the European avant-garde, through “a far more expansive aesthetic agenda of cultural nationalism grounded in a combination of modern art forms and American Scene subjects” (2). This endeavor arose partially from a passion for Americana, and partly from “a contempt for the foreign artist and his influence” (1). A prime example of Regionalist art, and also the most popular painting of the 20th century in America, is Wood’s “American Gothic” (pictured left). Wood composed a formal portrait of his sister and their dentist, dressed as a farmer and his spinster daughter. The ambiguities of this painting have long been debated; some argue that the painting is a satirical jab at rural narrow-mindedness, while others interpret the painting as a reverent depiction of the modesty and work ethic of Midwestern rural culture (6). Wood himself consistently proclaimed that it represented “his sincere belief in the values of hearth and home” (7). This nostalgia for America’s rural past was a distinct element of American modernism, negating the belief that modernism was tied solely to urban modernity. However, Regionalist art like “American Gothic” did not necessarily advocate a return to pre-industrialized America, but instead espoused a path of modernization tempered by older American values of individualism, autonomy, and community in the face of an increasingly mechanized modern world (Doss, 112).
Another artist concerned with maintaining individualism, primarily for the worker, was Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Despite the prevailing xenophobia of the Regionalists and many Americans after World War I, there were indeed many immigrant artists playing a major role in the evolution of American modernism. Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to paint a mural (pictured right) depicting the Ford automobile assembly plant, the Rouge,
which pioneered the mass-production assembly line. Rivera, a Marxist who was deeply concerned with the plight of the proletariat, used the opportunity to extol the power of the worker, and in doing so he “interrogated America’s uncritical romance with industry by stressing the interdependence of man and machine” (2) that was so prevalent in modern life. Workers in the mural seem to fade into the obscurity of an oppressive mechanized system of production, their forms anonymous within the elaborately layered industrial imagery. Rivera’s mural warned against the dangers of worshipping the “’God-Objective of Mass Production’” (2) at the expense of the individual worker, and this narrative helped to inform yet another facet of American modernism; one which sought to maintain individuality and advocate for the working class, in the tradition of earlier social progressives such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis.
Perhaps the most dominant theme of American modernism was the primacy of consumer culture, as developed by the very system of mass production that Rivera criticized. In fact, the definition of what it meant to be modern in America became increasingly synonymous with conspicuous consumption. Advertisers and corporate capitalists drove an image of modernity in
which “’new’ products were identified as ‘modern’, and to be a modern American was to perpetually consume the latest fads and fashions” (2). Nowhere was this more evident than at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York (pictured left). The Fair’s central structures – the Trylon and Perisphere – were decidedly modern constructions, perhaps crafted after a Bauhaus or Constructivist aesthetic, reductive in their simple geometric forms. But beyond architectural statements, these structures and other exhibits were used to peddle a vision of modernism as tied not only to urbanization, industrialization, and technology, but also to consumption and capitalism. The Fair unapologetically sought to transform visitors into “eager participants in a modernist /consumerist future” (8). Various pavilions touted a modern vision of the future in which success comes primarily in the form of mass-produced material goods. The moral message of the 1939 World’s Fair, essentially, “was only a slight vulgarization of that quintessentially North American melding of piety and capitalist progress… Things, which come to anyone who works hard, are their own reward and contain within their shining palpability a gleam akin to the radiance that used to emanate from the locus of virtue” (8). Here, instead of merely venerating the God of Machine, the grandiose Fair complex also stood as a temple to the God of Consumerism, a deity that played an integral role in the evolution of American modernism.
American modernism was clearly multi-faceted, and its self-conscious aim to distinguish itself from the aesthetics of Europe made it both unique and complex. Best viewed through the lens of the works it produced, the American modernist movement simultaneously embraced: the machine age through images such as Paul Strand’s 1923 “Akeley Motion Picture Camera”; isolationist American nostalgia in Regionalist works such as Grant Wood’s 1930 “American Gothic”; concerns about maintaining individualism in the face of mechanized modernity in Diego Rivera’s 1933 mural “Detroit Industry”; and consumer capitalism at the 1939 World’s Fair. While much of the social upheaval of the modernist era has subsided, the artistic and cultural legacy persists. Indeed, the mechanized, automobile-dominated, consumerist “World of Tomorrow” promoted at Flushing Meadows more than 70 years ago was, in hindsight, unsettlingly accurate.
(1) Hills, Patricia. Modern Art in the USA. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.
(2) Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
(3) Washington Post. “Art; Paul Strand: The Photographer’s Spent Flash.” The Washington Post. (December 5, 1990, Wednesday, Final Edition ): 1797 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/05/08.
(4) Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. McGraw-Hill, 1999. Print.
(5) Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 4th ed. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2007. Print.
(6) Burgher, Elijah. “Grant Wood’s American Gothic.” School Arts Oct. 2005: 35+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/05/08.
(7) Jones, Jonathan. “American Gothic, Grant Wood (1930)” The Guardian. (17 May 17, 2002, Friday edition). Web. Date Accessed: 2012/05/08.
(8) Dault, Gary Michael. “Nostalgia for the Future: Tomorrow is 50 Years Old.” Canadian Art, Vol. 6 #4, (December 1989): 1,442 words. The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/05/08.
“Akeley Motion Picture Camera” by Paul Strand, 1923. Image source: Philadephia Museum of Art online.
“American Gothic” by Grant Wood, 1930. Image source: The Art Institute of Chicago online.
The north wall of Diego Rivera’s ‘Detroit Industry’ mural, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Image source: The Wall Street Journal online.
World’s Fair complex, Flushing Meadows, NY – 1939. Image source: Wired.com.