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13.2: American Modernity, From Both Sides

  • Page ID
    232342
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    There was not one but several American modernisms. Artists of the period were captivated by the spectacle of American modernity, both its technological and its urban forms. Captivation, however, implies a range of attitudes, from celebration to ambivalence and distrust. All of these attitudes are evident in artwork that engaged themes of modern American life- machines and bodies, industry, jazz and consumerism, sex, and the city, and-framing it all-the contentious love affair between America and Europe itself. From both sides of the Atlantic, motivated by both admiration and recoil, artists grappled with the central role of American modernity in the new century.

    Framing the Discourse

    Winning the Public Over to Modernism

    THE ARMORY SHOW resulted in a new effort to educate the public in the mysteries of modern art. This effort took shape first through a steady stream of books that attempted to explain it to a wide public, beginning with Arthur Jerome Eddy's Cubism and Post-Impressionism (1914). In 1924, Seldon Cheney's Primer of Modern Art predicted that modern art would soon appear as inevitable as "death or taxes" (page s). In the 1920s, a number of organizations and exhibitions exposed the public to ongoing developments in European art Constructivism, Bauhaus, and other movements-including Katherine Dreier's Societe Anonyme, Albert Gallatin's Gallery of Living Art in lower Manhattan, and the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art.

    Despite these efforts at "mainstreaming" modernism, denunciations of the new art remained a persistent feature of the public reception of aesthetic forms that challenged conventional notions. Conservatives saw modernist art as a symptom of insanity, idiocy, Communist conspiracy, criminality, or bad eyesight (one prominent Chicago patron formed an organization called "Sanity in Art," which promoted the idea that abstract artists were astigmatic). Conservative critics in the 1910s and later linked abstraction, Expressionism, and other forms of modernism to dangerous foreign influences undermining the traditional values of the nation. Calling it "Ellis Island art," they associated it with immigrants- many of them Russian Jews fleeing persecution-whose presence they felt was diluting the values of an older America. Reactions against modernism coincided with currents of cultural isolationism. During such times, many Americans who felt threatened by changes in the economy and by the emergence of an increasingly multicultural society took refuge in an older version of American life that they felt was under siege by modernity. Modern art embodied their anxieties about a changing America .

    New York Dada: A Transatlantic Collaboration

    "The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of life. It is really part of human life ... perhaps the very soul" -Francis Picabia.

    "The machine is the religious expression of today" - The Little Review n, No. 1 (Spring 1925).

    By the early twentieth century, the United States was the most fully mechanized and industrially advanced country in the world. As the American-born Frenchman Eugene Jolas wrote in transition June, 1930 ), here was a nation where "the social and human structure is ineluctably permeated with the ideology of the machine."9 Machines had fundamentally transformed the ways in which urban Americans (by 1900 the greater part of the population) experienced time and space. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, art and the machine had been what Henry Adams would call "two realms of force," that of culture (mind, imagination, and creative expression, freed from utilitarian needs, as well as ethical ideals and spiritual aspiration) and that of society (industry, finance, and the governing institutions that created the infrastructure of the social world). Art, a product of human imagination and freedom, was defined in a manner that excluded the machine. But this older habit of mind overlooked the fact that the machine was itself a product of human imagination.

    "Industrial civilization," wrote one philosopher, "must either find a means of ending the divorce between its industry and its 'culture' or perish."10 A new modernist culture would have to embrace the machine as a major element. Machines were no longer things to be avoided in the search for a higher life that had dominated the genteel culture of the late nineteenth century. Now they claimed the interests of artists as the subjects of art; as new instruments with which to make art (the still camera, the motion picture camera, and the airbrush were all machines); as furnishing new principles of aesthetic organization; and as aesthetic objects in their own right. In short, a machine age called for a machine art. At the same time, however, World War I offered a horrifying display of machine-driven mass destruction, casting a dark shadow over this love affair with technology.

    ÉMIGRÉ INFLUENCE. What is most remarkable about this aesthetic embrace of America's technological modernity was that it happened first among European artists. Only in the wake of this European encounter would American artists come to appreciate the artistic potential of their own society. World War I brought an influx of new creative personalities. The cultural bonuses provided by their arrival in New York were many: they made fun of the pieties that ruled American art, introducing irony, attacking entrenched notions of "high art," and adding a welcome measure of sheer silliness to the proceedings.

    In 1915 Marcel Duchamp and other émigrés in flight from the war in Europe inspired a new kind of artistic activity which came to be known as New York dada. Preceding the official birth of international Dada in 1916 in the European capitals of Berlin, Zurich, and Paris, it was the product of a particular transatlantic exchange between French and American artists. In contrast to European Dada, which was fed by a deep sense of cultural exhaustion and disgust with the prevailing political and social order that had produced the war, New York dada sprang from a fascination with the exciting new forms of urban modernity taking shape on this side of the Atlantic. Leading the new art were Duchamp and Francis Picabia (1879-1953) . Both had already been introduced to U.S. audiences through their works at the Armory Show. Bored by a New York art world earnestly pursuing its own brand of native modernism, these Frenchmen were far more engaged by American modernity-fast cars, fast women, machines, skyscrapers, and popular entertainment. New York dada assumed newly mobile gender identities, used found objects, and rejected aesthetic modernism- those forms of artmaking that centered around easel painting, pursuing a separate aesthetic language distinct from everyday forms. New York dada was the first genuinely transatlantic movement, bringing European and American artists together in a mutual exploration of machine-made modern America. Their example revitalized American art at a critical moment. But at the same time, their encounter with American modernity would produce radically anti-art gestures that left their mark on the subsequent history of the international avant-garde.

    Duchamp had begun as a painter, part of a circle of avant-garde artists and writers who gathered in a suburb of Paris. Even before his presence at the Armory Show, he was showing signs of boredom with easel painting. He turned to chance procedures and mechanomorphic narratives involving witty commentaries on human sexual drives; he repudiated any willed aesthetic program. By 1913 Duchamp had given up painting and had created his first "readymade," a snow shovel which he hung from the ceiling and titled In Advance of the Broken Arm. Picabia in turn contributed the mechanomorph. Resembling anonymous mechanical drawings, these works portrayed human subjects as machines. Picabia's mechanomorphs mocked the quest for authentic selfhood and creative originality that obsessed his American counterparts. They revealed his combined sense of delight and anxiety over the prospect of a world where mechanical functions had displaced the human.

    Figure 13.5: FRANCIS PICABIA, lei, C'est lei Stieglitz Foi et Amour, 1915. Pen, red and black ink on paper, 29⅞ X 20 in (75.9 x 50.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.
    Figure 13.5: FRANCIS PICABIA, lei, C'est lei Stieglitz Foi et Amour, 1915. Pen, red and black ink on paper, 29⅞ X 20 in (75.9 x 50.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.

    Picabia's lei, C'est lei Stieglitz: Foi et Amour (fig. 13.5) is an affectionately satirical mechanical portrait of his friend Alfred Stieglitz as a box camera. Set on its face, bellows extended but sagging, Stieglitz-as-camera aspires heavenward but falls short of reaching the ideal (IDEAL, printed in Gothic script). Stieglitz's creativity is here linked to his masculine potency. Both, Picabia suggests, were less than fully functioning (this was two years before Stieglitz began his passionate relationship with O'Keeffe). The lens pointed upward suggests native modernism's (failed) pursuit of a form of visionary seeing based on nature. Picabia and Duchamp would both repudiate such forms of nature based on retinal art. Along with other forms of New York dada, Picabia's mechanomorphs wittily dispensed with modernist notions of self-expression in order to comment on the category of art itself. Pursuing an anemic idealism, Stieglitz's brand of modernism-or so Picabia's portrait suggests-lacked the creative spark that would ignite the engine of a new American art: his stickshift is in neutral and his car is going nowhere.

    GENDER PLAY. Picabia and his colleagues delighted in giving the machine- traditionally associated with masculinity-feminine attributes. Technology and "manliness" had come to be closely allied in the late nineteenth century. The giant Corliss engine (see fig. 9.15) at the heart of the 1876 Centennial exhibition was characterized as "an athlete of steel and iron."11 The French artists, however, humorously subverted such associations by linking the machine to the feminine . In so doing, they exposed the extent to which machines-far from being allies of masculine identity- threatened it in fundamental ways, much as women themselves were threatening male authority by their claims to greater sexual and social independence in the early twentieth century. Women also held increasing power in the marketplace as consumers, posing a further threat to male autonomy through the feminization of public space. The French emigres in New York were keen analysts of American dreams and anxieties, scrambling older divisions between masculine technology and feminine culture. A decade later, the heroic figure of the masculine engineer, central to much American modernism, emerged to reassert the power of men over machines, and, by extension, over women.

    Figure 13.6: MAN RAY, Marcel Duchamp Dressed as Rrose Selavy, 1924. Gelatin silver print, 8½ x 6 3/16, in (21.5 x 15.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Samuel S. White, 3rd, and Vera White Collection.
    Figure 13.6: MAN RAY, Marcel Duchamp Dressed as Rrose Selavy, 1924. Gelatin silver print, 8½ x 6 3/16, in (21.5 x 15.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Samuel S. White, 3rd, and Vera White Collection.
    Figure 13.7: JULIAN ELTINGE, Julian Eltinge with and without the Julian Eltinge Cold Cream on His Face, 1904. Photograph. Princeton University Theatre Collection, New Jersey.
    Figure 13.7: JULIAN ELTINGE, Julian Eltinge with and without the Julian Eltinge Cold Cream on His Face, 1904. Photograph. Princeton University Theatre Collection, New Jersey.

    For American genteel culture, male and female had been unquestioned absolutes, rooted in biological difference. Critical to New York dada's unsettling of bourgeois conventions grounded in nature was a new playfulness toward gender identity, as something socially performed rather than dictated by biology. Marcel Duchamp adopted a feminine persona (fig. 13.6, Marcel Duchamp Dressed as Rrose Selavy), for which he cross-dressed as a woman. Duchamp's gender play drew upon a vibrant new popular culture centered in vaudeville, burlesque, and film. One inspiration for his coy persona (a pun on the French phrase "Eros C'est la Vie," translated as "Sex, that's Life") may have come from the popular theater of New York City in the opening years of the century. Julian Eltinge (fig. 13.7) was a transvestite performer whose fame crossed social lines to appeal to a wide audience. His spoofs on the manners and dress of upper-class ladies made cross-dressing a branch of legitimate entertainment, and continued with the inspired antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

    The patron saint of New York dada was the outrageous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had emigrated to New York from Germany. The baroness paraded through the haunts of the avant-garde, her head shaved and painted, wearing spoons, curtain rings, and headdresses of bird cages, and carrying a plaster cast of a penis with which she enjoyed shocking old ladies. The inspired madness of her performed life, her gender play, and her assemblages made out of found objects point toward new models of art-making.

    Figure 13.8: MAN RAY, Rebus, 1925. Bronze, 8¾ x 11 in (22.2 x 27.9 cm). Private Collection.
    Figure 13.8: MAN RAY, Rebus, 1925. Bronze, 8¾ x 11 in (22.2 x 27.9 cm). Private Collection.

    THE PRIMITIVE AND THE MODERN. Dada scrambled other distinctions that had organized bourgeois society on the eve of modernism. For instance, it blurred the boundaries between the primitive and the modern. Man Ray's photograph Rebus (fig. 13.8) exploits the accidental resemblances between very different things: here, the cross-section of a rifle, an industrial found object that, removed from its original context and positioned vertically, bore a striking similarity to "primitive" African sculpture. Rebus also combined male and female attributes, suggesting a seated man as well as the protruding belly and breasts of a woman. Having studied briefly at the Ferrer "Modern School" in New York, Man Ray (1890-1976)-like his close associate Duchamp, with whom he collaborated throughout the late 1910s and early 1920s-moved away from painting toward photography and found objects; in 1921 he left New York for Paris, where he established a twenty-year-long association with international Surrealist circles, and where he spent the bulk of his career.

    The subversive humor of much New York dada lies in the sly manner in which the body-sexuality and desire, physical quirks and needs-reasserts its claims in spite of the American obsession with using technology to transcend the demands of physical life. Whether as machines for flying, eliminating waste, or winning eternal youth, such manifestations of technophilia-or worship of technology-bore the brunt of their humor. As Baroness Elsa-the diva of dada-put it in her broken English, ''America's comfort:-sanitation-outside machinery- has made American forget own machinery-body!"12

    Figure 13.9: BARONESS ELSA VON FREYTAG-LORINGHOVEN & MORTON SCHAMBERG, God, c. 1918. Miter box and cast-iron plumbing trap, 10½ in (26.6 cm) high. Gelatin silver print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1973.
    Figure 13.9: BARONESS ELSA VON FREYTAG-LORINGHOVEN & MORTON SCHAMBERG, God, c. 1918. Miter box and cast-iron plumbing trap, 10½ in (26.6 cm) high. Gelatin silver print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1973.

    The Baroness titled her dada tribute to American plumbing God (fig. 13.9 ).

    Figure 13.10: RUBE GOLDBERG, Killer Stock Market Share Price Indicator. Cartoon. Rube Goldberg, Inc.
    Figure 13.10: RUBE GOLDBERG, Killer Stock Market Share Price Indicator. Cartoon. Rube Goldberg, Inc.

    The Frenchmen were not alone in skewering America's obsession with machinery. The cartoonist Rube Goldberg, whose work was reproduced in Duchamp's little magazine New York Dada in 1921, found humor in America's substitution of machines for basic bodily functions and in its elaborate gadgetry for performing the most simple human tasks (fig. 13.10), be it making a pair of blue jeans or putting a bullet in one's head. As a popular medium, cartoons were freer than high art to engage the absurdities of everyday life, and they did so with considerable skill and inventiveness.

    New York dada's most enduring contribution to twentieth-century art was the "found object," those anonymous products of American industry-bicycle wheels, urinals, egg beaters, and spark-plugs-which the dadaists displayed as "readymade" art.

    Duchamp and the "Readymade"

    Figure 13.11: MARCEL DUCHAMP, Fountain, 1917. Original lost. Gelatin silver print photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 9¼ x 7 in (23.4 x 17.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Arensberg Archive.
    Figure 13.11: MARCEL DUCHAMP, Fountain, 1917. Original lost. Gelatin silver print photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 9¼ x 7 in (23.4 x 17.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Arensberg Archive.

    In 1917, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal to the show held by the New York Society of Independent Artists, an organization devoted to breaking the hold of the jury system over fine arts exhibitions. Duchamp offered the work under the pseudonym "R. Mutt" (fig. 13.11), a name that to most viewers evoked the cartoon character from Mutt and Je.ffbut which was also inspired by the J. L. Mott Ironworks, manufacturers of bathroom fixtures. Various collaborators-both men and women, fellow artists and patrons- have been suggested in Duchamp's act of aesthetic sabotage, which was directed at seeing just how far his American colleagues were willing to go in suspending aesthetic judgment on works declaring themselves to be art. His aesthetic provocation worked. The piece, entitled Fountain, was rejected by the exhibition organizers, all fellow artists, provoking a split within the organization and culminating in Duchamp's resignation from the Society's board. Alfred Stieglitz, the untiring defender of artistic freedom, intervened on his behalf, as did his patron Walter Arensberg, but to no avail. Fountain pulled the rug from under a number of stable notions about art: first, that art was different from the everyday; second, that it was the product of a creative act of making; and third, that it was the authentic expression of an individual sensibility. Finally, Fountain placed audiences in uncomfortable proximity with bodily processes, one of the very aspects of life that art was meant to transcend.

    Critics writing about Fountain noted its ambiguous gender references. Everyone recognized it as a urinal, a receptacle for male fluids, yet turned upside down, the urinal now recalled in shape both a Madonna figure and an impassive, pear-shaped male Buddha, an association noted by several observers at the time. Such associations seemed obscene to many viewers. As with his cross-dressing, Duchamp used his found objects to unsettle received wisdom (a urinal is not a work of art), and to scramble distinctions between male and female. His work reflected critically on the historical assumptions behind much of art's history, by implying that art was a conceptual category rather than an essence. Art was what bore the label "art."

    When Alfred Stieglitz photographed Fountain, he characteristically emphasized its aesthetic qualities by softening the light and setting the work against the background of a Marsden Hartley painting. The alternation of light and shadows on the porcelain object formed enigmatic shapes, transforming the object through association. These aesthetic qualities were noted at the time. Duchamp was quoted as saying that "beauty is around you wherever you choose to discover it."13 His European colleagues expressed their admiration for this and several other of the artist's readymades: mass-produced objects such as snow shovels or bottle racks, divested of their use value to be made available as "art." Neatly reversing the objection of the Society jury that the urinal (an ordinary object) desecrated the sanctity of art, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) argued that calling an ordinary object art ennobled it. And, however outrageous, Duchamp's statement that America's plumbing and bridges were its greatest achievements conferred artistic value on the urinal as found object. His irreverent remark paid tribute to America's modernity by way of a backhanded compliment that simultaneously revealed the inability of American artists to make works to rival the nation's industrial products. The pursuit of cultural authenticity, Duchamp's act suggested, had produced nothing that could stand alongside the anonymous mass-produced industrial commodity.

    "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view- created a new thought for that object."14 These words, most likely written in part by Duchamp himself, suggest that the aesthetic act consists of selecting rather than making; and of framing a familiar object in a new context in which viewers are called upon to decide for themselves what it means through a conceptual act. This was perhaps Duchamp's most radical move, because in doing so he challenged older forms of cultural authority that sought to dictate both the value and meaning of the work of art. Such "de-authorizing" of the authority vested in art-world voices proved most unsettling for the ostensibly non-juried Society of Independents, several of whom expressed outrage. Fountain's pointed ambiguity opened up the range of possible responses audiences brought to his work; its refusal to be understood as one thing rather than another left the meaning to each individual.

    Duchamp's insistence that anything could be denominated art subverted the venerated principle of artistic authorship. He redefined the realm of the aesthetic, opening it to the everyday, and relocating it not in the object but in acts of selection and naming. Duchamp uncoupled aesthetics from notions of beauty, and situated them in the recontextualizing act of seeing in an ordinary object something other than itself. His subversively democratic act was, however, largely overlooked at the time. Fountain, presumed to have been bought by Arensberg, was lost, broken, or destroyed soon thereafter. Duchamp, somewhat ironically, authorized replicas of the work when the original episode was uncovered by a later generation of artists beginning in the 1950s. Reframed in the context of Conceptual, Pop, and other movements in the 1960s, Fountain gained a new iconic importance as a foundational gesture. But locked into these different histories, the work and the gesture lose their original fluidity of meaning and become, once again, works of art like others in the museum.

    Four years before Duchamp's provocative gesture of 1917, John Cotton Dana (1856- 1929), pioneering director of the Newark Museum in New Jersey, actively collected and exhibited bathroom fixtures and other mass-produced objects previously off-limits to the museum. Unlike Duchamp, he frankly acknowledged them for what they were- products of American industry. Dana rejected the segregation of the museum from everyday associations. And he was prophetic in recognizing that modernism was not a movement limited to the high arts of painting and sculpture but one directed at redesigning everyday objects. Early on Dana recognized. the contribution of German design, dedicated to integrating art and industry, with an exhibition of the Deutsche Werkbund in 1912. Inspired by their example, he put industrial objects- bathtubs and other plumbing fixtures-on display at the Newark. Banished from the realm of fine art exhibitions, Duchamp's urinal might have found a place in Dana's museum.

    Alexander Calder: Reinventing the Gadget

    Driven by the encounter with French emigre artists, American art first engaged technology and machines in the 1910s. In the years between the wars, American artists (along with industrialists such as Henry Ford) began to think of the machine as having a history rooted in America's past. The parents of today's machines were yesterday's farm threshers, or the many-geared hand-turned devices of impossible ingenuity for peeling and coring apples. Seen from a European perspective, this American fascination with gadgetry was material for satire. For more than one emigre artist to the United States in the 1910s, the American obsession with means often obscured ends, as the manner of solving the problem became far more complicated than the problem itself. This perspective on American gadgetry helped form the sculptural imagination of Alexander Calder (1898- 1976). As a young American in Paris, Calder cultivated a childlike whimsy that appealed to the French (Fernand Leger described his art as "mo percent American").15 Calder brought good old American knowhow to sculpture, along with a fascination with putting things together, an inventiveness toward new materials, and a background in mechanical engineering. He playfully engaged French stereotypes of the pragmatic American in love with plumbing, mocking this American obsession by having an American flag wave every time the water closet (toilet) in his studio was flushed.16 Calder's art made people laugh when they saw it, a response that violated the piety of high art, and put art on a different footing- whimsical, improvised, a sophisticated version of child's play.

    Figure 13.12: ALEXANDER CALDER, Circus, 1926-31. Mixed media: wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, 54 x 94¼ X 94¼ in (137.2 x 239.4 x 239.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
    Figure 13.12: ALEXANDER CALDER, Circus, 1926-31. Mixed media: wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, 54 x 94¼ X 94¼ in (137.2 x 239.4 x 239.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    Calder first made his name among the Parisian vanguard by performing with a toy circus he created out of wire sculpture and an elaborate series of strings, levers, and pulleys that set his tiny figures in motion (fig. 13.12). The circus, a subject long beloved of Europe's avant-garde, also had a distinctly American heritage. Cosmopolitan and American, it was the perfect subject for Calder's transatlantic vision.

    Figure 13.13: ALEXANDER CALDER, Mobile(Universe), 1934. Motor-driven mobile. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Figure 13.13: ALEXANDER CALDER, Mobile(Universe), 1934. Motor-driven mobile. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    To his delight in making things, Calder brought an appreciation for abstraction, heightened by his visit to the Paris studio of the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). From the recognizable subjects of his wire sculptures, Calder turned to mobiles-in which space is animated by small spheres, suggesting on a minute scale the immense distances of the universe itself (fig. 13.13). His sculptures wedded mechanical motions to nature in his use of biomorphic forms influenced by Surrealists like Joan Miro (1893- 1983) and Hans Arp (1887-1966). In Calder's stabiles (set upon a stable base and immovable) and mobiles (suspended or supported from above and allowing movement), two-dimensional forms, cut out of sheet metal, are assembled into dynamic compositions. Calder's mobiles eliminated the traditional structural supports of sculpture, freeing it from the limitations of gravity by suspending forms from wires rather than placing them on a pedestal or base, viewed against a background. He transformed wire, sheet metal, and other industrial materials into objects of wonder, freeing them from associations with their utilitarian origins.

    Expatriation and Internal Exile Between the Wars

    'America is now early Victorian, very early Victorian, she is a rich and well nourished home but not a place to work. Your parents' home is never a place to work" - Gertrude Stein.17

    The 1920s was a decade of growing cultural self-consciousness as artists and writers struggled with divided feelings about their native home. Many American modernists were critical of America's business values and cultural shallowness, yet they nonetheless remained committed to a national art responsive to the present. They adopted a number of different approaches that allowed them to be "in the culture but not of it" - to engage American modernity in their work without becoming too closely identified with the cultural mainstream whose values they rejected. These included irony ( a lesson learned from the emigre French artists of the 1910s) and temporary expatriation to Europe. Artists and writers of this generation spent long periods in Europe, eventually returning to make an uneasy peace with their native culture through the distancing strategy of irony.

    The post-war devaluation of the French franc made living abroad affordable. Things that annoyed at close quarters charmed at a distance. The decision of many American artists and writers to remain abroad coincided with a vogue for things American-known in France as Americanisme. If European modernists turned their noses up at the art of America's academies and elite galleries, they openly embraced its popular culture: jazz, vaudeville, "negro songs," and the brash appeal of billboards, electric lights, and commercial messages emblazoned against the sky. In the 1920s the phenomenally successful African American cabaret and revue dancer Josephine Baker came to Paris from the Midwest (St. Louis); Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were all the rage. American artists, in short, went to Europe to discover America.

    Figure 13.14: GERALD MURPHY, Safety Razor, 1924. Oil on canvas, 32⅝ x 36½ in (83 X 92.7 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, North Harwood, Dallas, Texas. Foundation for the Arts Collection.
    Figure 13.14: GERALD MURPHY, Safety Razor, 1924. Oil on canvas, 32⅝ x 36½ in (83 X 92.7 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, North Harwood, Dallas, Texas. Foundation for the Arts Collection.

    IRONIC DISTANCE: GERALD MURPHY AND JOSEPHINE BAKER. The European admiration for American modernity encouraged American artists to try new forms of artistic expression and to engage sources previously frowned upon by America's cultural elites because they derived from the "low" culture of advertising, commercial display, and found objects. From a safe remove, America's commercial forms of art became ripe for appropriation by this post-war generation. Transferred out of their business and advertising contexts, they became available for other kinds of cultural meanings. The artist and bon vivant Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) and his wife Sarah embraced American culture from the safe distance of the Left Bank of Paris or the Riviera. Murphy, a wealthy Yale-educated American, developed a visual idiom during a brief painting career (1922-9) that anticipated the Pop art movement of four decades later. Murphy took up painting not long after moving to Europe with Sarah. His friend the French modernist painter Fernand Leger (1881-1955), whose preference for monumentalized objects from everyday life resembled Murphy's own, pronounced him "the only American painter in Paris." 18 Like the French emigres to New York before him, Murphy's paintings of overscaled fountain pens, safety matches, and safety razors (which the Mark Cross Company marketed) (fig. 13.14) commented wittily on Americans' naive obsession with material comfort and consumer products that removed the element of risk and danger from life. Unburdened by the anxieties of the professional artist to prove himself within the arena of European modernism, Murphy unabashedly employed a commercial style. He made fun of the egomania of the self-made American millionaire ("Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic," screamed the front page of an American tabloid paper used as a backdrop for a comic ballet coproduced by Murphy and his friend Cole Porter). Murphy used the flat planes and unmodulated colors of advertising. To this he added the dean-edged precision of commercial illustration, a field in which he had training.

    Figure 13.15: Josephine Baker with her banana skirt, c. 1927.
    Figure 13.15: Josephine Baker with her banana skirt, c. 1927.

    The Murphys' "Villa America" on the French Riviera was a gathering point for an international set of writers and artists, including Pablo Picasso and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Among these visitors were Americans who traveled freely between Europe and the United States- including the writers Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)-forming what Gertrude Stein had contemptuously dubbed the "lost generation" in a conversation reported years later by Hemingway himself. Like Murphy, they were in flight from a philistine culture mindless of the arts. "Living well was the best revenge" -to paraphrase Murphy-for their disappointment with the hollowness of a world the previous generation had created, and then destroyed in the Great War. In rebellion against the bourgeois values of their elders, the "lost generation" was well tuned to the French fascination with American popular culture after World War I. The Murphys and their guests danced the Charleston to the latest American recordings, drank American booze, and served their guests corn fritters. Performed for a European audience, such activities lost their assoctation with a crude materialist civilization and acquired the gloss of an uninhibited and exotic New World. By going abroad, expatriates like Murphy and Josephine Baker (1906- 75) gained a measure of distance from those aspects of U.S. culture by which they felt trapped: an oppressive business environment on the one hand, and an entrenched racism on the other. Yet both skillfully exploited the very realities they wished to escape. Murphy transformed commercial graphics and advertising into art. Baker's stage persona- bare-breasted, and wearing a hip-hugging skirt of bananas- knowingly played on primitivist fantasies of the sexualized African (fig. 13.15). Each in their different ways turned confining cultural conditions on their heads, submitting them to irony, play, and satire. In the process, they achieved a creative triumph over the very circumstances that had driven them from America in the first place.

    Figure 13.16: ROMAINE BROOKS, Lady Una Troubridge, 1924. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 13.16: ROMAINE BROOKS, Lady Una Troubridge, 1924. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

    HOMOSEXUAL EXILES: ROMAINE BROOKS, CHARLES DEMUTH, AND MARSDEN HARTLEY. Europe offered other forms of liberation for those who wished to invent new identities for themselves. Romaine Brooks (1874- 1970) was one of an international community of lesbian artists and writers who performed a range of new social, sexual, and gender roles for one another in the relative freedom of such oases as Paris and Capri. France, unusually tolerant toward same-sex love, became Brooks's primary home from 1905 on. The life she fashioned for herself there was made possible by family wealth. For Brooks's lesbian circle, androgyny- a cultivated sexual ambiguity-was linked to a sophisticated modern attitude of self-invention. Brooks's portrait of her friend Una, Lady Troubridge (fig. 13.16) employs a limited color range, enlivened only by Una's red lipstick, and an elegantly stark line linking the lady to her two dogs, to suggest the ve.ry stylized personality of the sitter. With her enormous monocle, arched eyebrows, and the severe cut of both her hair and her clothing, Lady Troubridge is the very type of the female dandy. It is somewhat ironic that Brooks and her lover-the wealthy heiress Natalie Barney-turned admiringly to fascism in the late 1930s, a movement that declared all such forms of gender fluidity to be "degenerate."

    For Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Marsden Hartley, ambivalence toward American culture was further complicated by their homosexuality. Both artists were exhibited by Stieglitz, who supported Hartley financially throughout his life, while Demuth never felt entirely at ease with a nationalistic and heterosexual stance. Initially trained in Philadelphia, Demuth was shaped by his encounters with the various phases of European modernism: beginning in 1912, he produced sensuous watercolors of flowers and fruit, exploring metaphorical associations with the body and with sexuality. In the 1910s Demuth found a home in the avant-garde culture of New York dada. A friend of Duchamp's, he left his provincial origins in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to reinvent himself as a European dandy in the metropolis of New York. There he painted the fast life of the city, from vaudeville to circuses and Harlem nightclubs. Watercolor washes bleed through his wavering pencil underdrawing. Within Demuth's deceptively casual linework flows a carefully cultivated energy, disbursed evenly throughout the surface, in modernist fashion eliminating the hierarchy of background/foreground. Until his death in 1935, Demuth alternated between these personally expressive, diaphanous watercolors and a crisp, hard-edged Precisionist style that brought his American roots to the fore.

    Figure 13.17: CHARLES DEMUTH, Distinguished Air, 1930. Watercolor, 16 3/16 X 12⅛ in (42.6 x 30.5 cm). Whimey Museum of American Art, New York.
    Figure 13.17: CHARLES DEMUTH, Distinguished Air, 1930. Watercolor, 16 3/16 X 12⅛ in (42.6 x 30.5 cm). Whimey Museum of American Art, New York.

    In a body of private watercolors, Demuth also explored a new form of urban modernity-the culture of homosexuality that emerged in the public spaces of New York City in the early twentieth century. His watercolors of encounters between men in bathhouses and on beaches reveal an alternative network of urban social and sexual relations. In this world, male desire is communicated through the gaze, now however directed at other men, as in Distinguished Air (fig. 13.17). Demuth's watercolor humorously observes the circuit of sexualized glances taking place around the public exhibition of the modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi's (1876-1957) Mademoiselle Pogany, whose phallic shape seems the public projection of private fantasies. Urban anonymity paradoxically permitted new forms of intimacy. Demuth's watercolors, like their subjects, circulated among particular audiences, their sinuous contours and delicately vibrating washes expressing a new sensuality. In the 1910s, when Demuth painted his sailors and sexually aroused male bathers, homosexuality was beginning to find its own expressive culture, based on recognizable codes of dress, social performance, and speech. As such it was part of a new urban environment shaped by pleasure and its pursuits: the colorful performers of vaudeville, burlesque, circus, cabaret, and jazz suggested an urban culture more physically and socially liberated than before. In the fluid social environment of the city, one could occupy many different social and personal roles simultaneously: professional, familial, and sexual. Even though he enjoyed Stieglitz's support in the 1920s, Demuth-like other members of the American avant-garde in these yearsdrew inspiration for his artistic and social experimentation from the popular culture of the metropolis. He occupied a different world from the virile heterosexual rhetoric and nature-based art of others in the Stieglitz circle.

    Figure 13.18: CHARLES DEMUTH, My Egypt, 1927. Oil on composition board, 35¾ x 30 in (90.8 x 76.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
    Figure 13.18: CHARLES DEMUTH, My Egypt, 1927. Oil on composition board, 35¾ x 30 in (90.8 x 76.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    Demuth's 1927 Precisionist painting My Egypt (fig. 13.18) directs our gaze upward toward the massive volumes of a concrete silo that fills the canvas. Beyond its study of intersecting planes and volumes-a self-consciously American riff on Cubism-My Egypt poignantly embodies Demuth's search for meaning in the unforgiving realities of America's industrial landscape. But My Egypt is also a symbolic exploration of exile within one's own country. Diagnosed with diabetes in 1921, he was forced by illness to abandon -his international travels in order to return to his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Making a virtue of necessity, Demuth turned his art to the silos, factories, warehouses, and flimsy wood buildings that made up the aging fabric of many mid-sized industrial cities like Lancaster.

    Demuth's understated irony paralleled that of his expatriate contemporaries, allowing him to use native subjects without becoming identified with the 'filnerica first" trumpeting and shallow patriotism that so often supported such themes. His reluctant decision to return home followed an exhilarating life in Europe. Reentry was a bitter pill.

    The title My Egypt imagines Demuth's return to America in terms of the biblical exile of the Jews in Egypt. The connection comes in part through a familiar modernist association of the concrete silo with the enormous and powerful forms of the Egyptian pyramids. Demuth's use of the imagery of exile in the context of his return home suggests his ambivalence about his native land. My Egypt also records his sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer insistence of America's commercial I industrial presence, which blocks the horizon-long denoting the open space of the future. Yet My Egypt combines alienation from his native land with aesthetic admiration for its uncompromising forms. Demuth's towering icon of American vernacular ingenuity is flooded with light from above; it confronts us with the massive monumentality of an ancient idol. And in its crisp and elegant arrangement of shaded planes and precise volumes, his style pays tribute to the meticulous design traditions of anonymous artisans.

    Demuth's varied body of work expressed the divisions in his own life, vacillating between extremes of sensuality and austerity, tradition and innovation, past and present, private and public, Europe and the United States. Demuth transformed the crude materials of American life into a body of work striking for its visual refinement. His was a paradoxical modernism that took refuge in old industrial landscapes haunted by a persistent sense of loss. Asked in an interview in 1929 what he looked forward to, he answered "The past."19

    Like Demuth, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) felt alienated from the culture into which he was born. His career-long search for a spiritual and emotional home sent him wandering between Europe, New Mexico, Mexico, Maine, and Nova Scotia. Stylistically he was equally restless, moving from post-Impressionist landscape to iconic abstraction, and the expressionistic figurative and regional landscape subjects of his later career. Demuth, his friend and colleague, had moved back and forth between cosmopolitan elegance and works that explored his provincial American origins. Hartley likewise vacillated between European inspired subjects and native visual traditions.

    Europe offered Hartley-like others of his generation- a refuge from the commercial civilization of his native land. Following an initial stay in Paris, where he absorbed the lessons of Picasso and Cezanne, Hartley found his way to Berlin in the period just preceding the outbreak of World War I. There he found a social and artistic community in the pre-war avant-garde around Kandinsky and the painters of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group. In a series of Berlin works of 1914-15 (p. 420 ), Hartley created richly patterned heraldic designs into which he wove symbols the abstract equivalents-of a young German officer killed in World War I, to whom he had become romantically attached. Iron crosses (German military emblems), and numbers and initials alluding to the regiment and name of the dead officer appear within a dense field of symbols including solar disks, eight-pointed stars, mandorlas, waving lines, and concentric circles. Coupling the immediate moment with symbols of universal meaning, Hartley struggled to redeem his personal loss.

    Figure 13.19: MARSDEN HARTLEY, Christ Held by Half Naked Men, 1940-1. Oil on fiberboard, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Joseph]. Hirshhorn, 1966.
    Figure 13.19: MARSDEN HARTLEY, Christ Held by Half Naked Men, 1940-1. Oil on fiberboard, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Joseph]. Hirshhorn, 1966.

    Throughout his career Hartley remained drawn to mysticism, developing a visual language of occult symbols drawn from sources ranging from Native American cultures to medieval Christianity in an effort to find a personally expressive language. At these times he turned away from the transatlantic influences of international modernism and looked instead to native sources, seeking as well to capitalize on a growing critical and commercial taste for the American scene. Toward the end of his career, from 1939 to 1943, he found inspiration in the visionary intensity of Albert Pinkham Ryder. In these years he also painted monumental iconic figures of Canadian fishermen in the North Atlantic, such as Christ Held by Half Naked Men (fig. 13.19). Calling these his "archaic portraits," Hartley used a severely frontal composition, in which forms are simplified and flattened out. His move toward anti-naturalism drew him to sources as varied as the French painter Georges Rouault (1871-1958), ancient Egyptian fayum portraits, and folk painting. Such primitivizing techniques recall how earlier European artists responded to exotic non-Western subjects, from South Pacific to African. They also suggest Hartley's own yearning for a wholeness of experience that might remedy his persistent sense of homelessness.

    Figure 13.20: STUART DAVIS, New York-Paris, no. 1, 1931. Oil on canvas, 39 x 54¾ in (99 x 139 cm). University of Iowa, Museum of Art, Iowa City, Iowa.
    Figure 13.20: STUART DAVIS, New York-Paris, no. 1, 1931. Oil on canvas, 39 x 54¾ in (99 x 139 cm). University of Iowa, Museum of Art, Iowa City, Iowa.

    COMFORTABLY AT HOME IN THE NOT-AT-HOME: STUART DAVIS. Stuart Davis-who began his career as an urban realist drawing scenes from New York life-first encountered European modernism at the Armory Show while still a very young artist. In 1928 he finally traveled to Paris for a year. When he returned he combined his apprenticeship to European modernism with his own cultural resources-among them jazz with its new syncopated rhythms, advertising, and billboards. Davis's New York / Paris, no. 1 (fig. 13.20) imagines a world that is neither one city nor the other, but a product of both; a world where movement itself between the United States and Europe becomes the theme of his art. New York / Paris No. 1 is a visual montage of images and objects associated with movement: a woman's stockinged leg caught in full stride; a station for the New York El, the elevated railroad; a dinghy and a fishing boat, associated with Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Davis had spent summers beginning in 1915. On the right is a streetside French cafe, and above it, turned on its side, the Chrysler Building, an instant icon of a glamorous new urban modernity. The narrative connecting these various elements is missing. This disjunctive approach suggests a life lived in many places simultaneously, and a mobile new identity comfortable with the dislocations of moving from place to place. Movement-and shifting cultural identities-were factors central to the new transatlantic artistic worlds of early modernism.


    This page titled 13.2: American Modernity, From Both Sides is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.