Western Artists at the turn of the 20th century were faced with an emerging modern era, which they enthusiastically embraced or scornfully dismissed. Young Picasso was an enthusiast, attracted particularly to Paul Cezanne’s paintings, which were, in part, geometric simplifications of the subject, whether a portrait or landscape. Picasso developed this to its logical conclusion, and beyond, in ways that would probably have scandalized Cezanne. This was Cubism.
Marcel Duchamp too reacted to Cezanne, at first working with the faceted planes typical of early Cubism as in his Nude Descending a Staircase. Cezanne’s work was so radical in its time that you either rejected it or took on the task of re-thinking what art was. This Duchamp did with a vengeance, reducing art to its essence – choice. Duchamp expanded what could be “chosen” in art, from brushstrokes to urinals, bags of charcoal, bottle driers… what came to be known as the ready made, instant art. Duchamp’s impact is seen in the periodic re-emerging of his take on things, such as the Conceptual Art Movement of the early 70s, or the more recent Jeff Koons phenomenon.
While Modernism was being born in Europe a movement in the U.S. was forming around the painter Robert Henri. For him the important artists were Frans Hals, Velazquez and Manet. Their styles and subject aligned with his emphasis on vitality. He seems to have been unaware of the revolution in painting occurring in France. Modernism had as yet not gained the notoriety it soon would. When finally it reached him, he completely dismissed it.
The movement that Henri founded came to be called the Ash Can School. It was paralleled in literature by the novels of Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. These authors were expressing outrage at the harsh living conditions endured by citizens in the rapidly growing cities. Successful industrialists were ruthlessly exploiting labor, reaping vast wealth and literally crumbs for the workers (sounds familiar). The painters were less interested in protesting than in sympathetically depicting the lives of ordinary people, creating a democratic and optimistic art. The term Ash Can derived from their humble subject.
Henri returned from Europe in 1891. The artists who gathered around him were newspaper illustrators – William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan. They joined him in New York City where he started an art school. Their style of painting was part of the tradition Europe’s advanced painters were discarding. What at first outraged critics was their subject. It was just not considered worthy of “high art” to depict boxers, street urchins and tenement houses. As European art was introduced in New York via Gallery 291 and the huge Armory Show, the essential conservatism of the Ash Can School, subject aside, became apparent. But it suited the country and the avant-garde had to germinate until the 40s.
Though Modernism only briefly caught the public’s eye it seriously engaged a group of U.S. painters who created a substantial body of work. The dominant influence was Cubism, the reduction of subject to geometric planes. This was joined by a brilliant color derived from French Fauvism (literally the wild beasts, so called by critics of their first exhibit) and German Expressionism. Some of the painters worked in a modern mode for only a few years then settled into styles more compatible with the larger conservatism of the time. Others sustained the modernist impulse throughout their careers.
Georgia O’Keefe was one of these. In her 90s when she died, her paintings are of vaguely organic forms, bones and flowers – all in a highly personal style. John Marin is known for his water colors of Maine, painted in an abstracted, fragmented array of planes, recognizable as landscape but enjoyable as color harmony. Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella painted scenes of factories, shipyards and cities in their unique Cubist style which emphasized diagonal division of the picture. Stuart Davis incorporated architectural elements also but reduced cityscape to a near cacophony of colored shapes, referring loosely to the subject and especially including billboards and advertising, anticipating Pop Art by at least a decade.
These painters were shunted aside by the art public in favor of the second wave of the Ash Can School, the American Scene painters. The diverse artists of this movement held in common a fondness for peculiarly U.S. subject. For some it was a critical look (the great depression was in full force), for others an affirmation. Black artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were also producing fine work as part of this movement.
The two main painters of the “affirmative” or regional school were actually defectors from the satire of their earlier work. Grant Wood’s painting, titled American Gothic, became highly popular. It was seen as embodying virtues particular to this country. Yet the painting was intended to satirize narrow prejudice. Wood is said to have gradually adopted the popular interpretation. His later works were patriotic scenes from U.S. history. Thomas Hart Benton shifted also from social concerns to celebrating Ozark farmers, fiddle-dancing and plowing fields.
The Social-Realist wing of the American Scene painters dealt with urban life. Some, as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield portrayed the downside of the U.S. success story: alienation, desolation and spiritual vacancy. Others were less psychological such as Reginal Marsh, Ben Shahn and Isabel Bishop, in their depicting of the victims of capitalism run amuck.
These painters, and many others, developed their unique styles while part of a more general movement. They defined that movement by what they accomplished. Ultimately, like all artists, they used their art to both make sense of and shape their world.