Exhibitions: American Identities: A New Look

Modern Life

Technology and the City

Gallery view of Modern Life, American Identities

Gallery view of “Modern Life,” American Identities

The works in this section of the gallery are all tied to the notion of modernity—a concept most often associated with rapid technological innovations that change society radically. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the awareness of modernity was exceptionally strong in cities, in large part because technology, including electricity, elevators, and skyscrapers, was transforming the patterns of people’s daily lives. Urban change was further stimulated by the influx of rural Americans and immigrants eager for work in economic and industrial centers. Most of the paintings displayed in this area concentrate on New York scenes, in a variety of styles, in which artists investigated the pictorial possibilities of these new subjects: city people, construction sites, urban entertainments, and bustling traffic. The decorative-arts objects on view draw more generally on forms abstracted from urban architecture and machine technology.

Nonobjective Art

Gallery view of Modern Life, American Identities

Gallery view of “Modern Life,” American Identities

The abstract or "nonobjective" art in this gallery represents a period in the early twentieth century when American artists began to follow their European counterparts in questioning the purpose and nature of art. Many avant-garde (progressive or experimental) artists rejected traditional ways of representation out of a belief that clearly identifiable and traditionally painted subjects were limited in their ability to express meaning. Instead, some artists relied on the basic formal elements of art—for instance, line, shape, and color—to suggest abstract, universal concepts (love, war, music, spirit, energy). Other artists believed that the subject matter should be limited to art itself, and purposely confined their work to analyzing visual elements to discover their purest forms. Americans who had not witnessed the aesthetic revolution taking place in Europe could see avant-garde art and discuss theory in the small New York gallery of the photographer-dealer Alfred Stieglitz. In 1913 the debut of the controversial Armory Show in American cities introduced contemporary avant-garde European art to a broad segment of the American public, establishing firm battle lines between traditional and avant-garde tastes that still exist today.

Art after 1945

With the close of World War II in 1945, the United States was thrust into a position of political, economic, and cultural predominance over a war-ravaged Europe. This was the beginning of the atomic age and the Cold War—a perplexing era characterized by both a booming economy and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Young American artists experimented with the achievements of pioneering European modernists and sought to create new visual languages. With the ascendancy of the intuitive, gestural style of Abstract Expressionism by the late 1950s, New York became the center of the international art world, and American artists the trendsetters. Building on this momentum, artists and designers of the 1960s created the pure forms of Minimalism. The increasing rapidity of social, political, and technological change throughout the remainder of the century found parallels in an art world that was equally destabilized. Pluralism dominated the 1970s, and the subsequent decades have brought about an even richer diversity as artists have forcefully explored issues of race and gender. The post-1945 American works on view here reveal a wide array of formal approaches and themes, and demonstrate the individualism and innovation that have been the hallmarks of American art production for the past fifty years.

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