National Gallery of Art | May 16, 2010–January 2, 2011
Charles Brock and Nancy Anderson with Harry Cooper
The American avant-garde played an important role in the creation of a modernist visual culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the first decades of the twentieth century. Many American artists resided in Paris during these years. There they encountered firsthand the innovations of their contemporaries Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, whose radical experiments in color and form epitomized modernism in Europe.
In the United States modernism initially found its strongest expression in the eclectic activities of the group of artists, writers, and critics who gathered around the photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery “291” in New York. The full scope of the modernist movement became evident in 1913 with The International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show. This display of well over a thousand American and European paintings and sculptures introduced the American public to cubism, abstraction, and other recent artistic developments. Following the Armory Show, the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp settled in New York in 1915, proclaiming “Europe is finished. . . America is the country of the art of the future.” Duchamp embraced the machine culture of his new home and raised provocative questions about how art should be defined by taking everyday, commercially manufactured objects and exhibiting them as simply “readymades.”
The twenty works by nineteen artists that form the Shein Collection offer a concise, nuanced account of the first American avant-garde. The various shifting, intersecting alliances of the early modernist period are represented, including the painters associated with Stieglitz such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe; practitioners of New York Dada such as Duchamp and Man Ray; the synchromists or color painters, Patrick Henry Bruce and Stanton Macdonald-Wright; precisionists such as Charles Demuth, Morton Schamberg, and Charles Sheeler; and the transatlantic modernists, Bruce, Duchamp, Man Ray, and John Storrs. Looking at the history of early American modernism through the lens of the Shein Collection offers a timely opportunity to consider the contributions made by American artists during the advent of modernism a century ago.