Cubism and Abstraction, which developed in Europe in the early twentieth century, represented radical tendencies. The Cubists Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) were considered revolutionaries because they reinterpreted space and form without regard for traditional perspective. They were motivated by a wish to replace objective reality with a subjective approach, triggered in part by their study of ancient Spanish sculpture and African art. The writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) freed them to explore the subconscious. In response to this movement, Max Weber (1864–1920) visited Paris and emulated the French Cubists and Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) opened his New York gallery 291, which became a beacon for radical modernists. He championed the young Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), whom he married in 1924, and together they set about creating a new vocabulary for American art characterized by simplification and strong emotional content. Sculptor William Zorach (1887–1966) was inspired by his study of indigenous art from Africa and Central and South America. Alexander Calder (1898–1976) declared that the underlying concept of his abstract mobiles was the organization of the universe. The American Abstract Artists, a group formed in 1936, espoused completely nonobjective art.
Weber, an intimate of the Alfred Stieglitz circle of early modernists, was the first American artist to study and know the avant-garde artists Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), and Henri Matisse (1869-1954). He frequented the salon of Gertrude (1874-1946) and Leo Stein (1872-1947). African sculpture and Japanese prints also inspired Weber.
Between 1911 and 1915 Weber completed a series of works in a Cubist style that emphasized the Futurists’ fascination with skyscrapers and the fast pace of urban life. Abstraction is a portrait of the Woolworth building, then the tallest in New York. The structure is segmented into flat, angular, crystalline facets and diagonal “force lines” that invest the structure with a spiraling sense of energy. Weber’s reputation as a pioneering modernist rests on his youthful Cubist-Futurist works such as Abstraction.
O’Keeffe’s panoramic cityscape documents a portion of the view from the apartment she shared with Alfred Stieglitz along the East River. By the way the image is cropped, it appears as though she had been influenced by her husband’s photography. Because the view is from the 30th story, the perspective is from above the horizon line, which cuts across the painting just beyond the farthest buildings in sight. The painting is again divided diagonally by the river. These diagonal movements, such as the diagonal paths of the boats and smoke trails, create an illusion of movement.
The subtle cast of light and the almost monochromatic color help to evoke a low-key, even sad mood. O’Keeffe was looking for an apartment, and, as she put it, “I decided to try the Shelton. I was shown two rooms on the 30th floor. I had never lived up so high before and was so excited that I began talking about trying to paint New York. Of course, I was told that it was an impossible idea—even the men hadn’t done too well with it.” O’Keeffe valued this picture so much that she refused to part with it for thirty years, until she sold it to the Museum.
Alexander Calder lived in Connecticut and France. The son of family of Philadelphia sculptors, he was profoundly influenced by his study of the heavens, which inspired his make-believe world of planets and stars. He originated the modernist concept of the mobile, a construction intended to move in the breeze. His cutout metal shapes, brightly painted, are connected and balanced by metal wire; because the mobile is in motion, it is the equivalent of a choreographed dance.
The impact of the arts of Africa and Oceania and of Native Americans was immense for American and European artists. Young Girl exemplifies Zorach’s interest in the formal qualities of carved wooden figures from these cultures and those formal elements’ ability to evoke a very human response in the viewer. The rounded, volumetric, stylized forms of bended torso and limbs, the impish expression, and the repetitive ripples in the hair combine to communicate a sense of innocence and vulnerability.
Have you seen the Modernism Gallery yet at the NBMAA? What did you think? Do you have a favorite artist? Do you prefer painting or sculpture? Can you see the different influences in the artworks from ancient arts and the various cultures from around the world? How does art today reflect the many cultures and global legacies?