New York made modernism; modernism made New York. And the city, in modernist eyes, was its own total and challenging work of art.
_Robert Hughes, American Visions:
The Epic History of Art in America, 1997
Prepare to view New York City "in modernist eyes." But first we must acknowledge that "American modernism" was a term in search of a definition. After World War One, writes art historian Sarah Lowe, American artists "embarked on a search for an authentic modern American idiom. How, precisely, to forge a distinctly American art form, or what it might look like was still unknown."1 Their search produced an extraordinary range of imagery, marking a distinct break from the prewar Ashcan School and the turn-of-the-century American Impressionists. The most influential works came from the Precisionists, whose work came to define 1920s modernism. Claiming the machine age as their realm, they producing streamlined ("precise") depictions of urban and industrial settings with boldly defined geometric shapes, commanding lines, unambiguous light and dark contrast, little detail, no texture, and rarely a human being. Their works might exalt the modern urban landscape or evoke its dehumanizing potential. And for the ultimate urban landscape, their "modernist eyes" looked to New York City
Study the seven paintings and two photographs below, created between 1922 and 1929. All are modernist works; six are precisionist. For most, you are directed to museum websites that provide discussion and zoomable images. Complete the chart, New York City in Visual Art of the 1920s, as you study the works. Compare the works with each other, with earlier and contemporary depictions of New York City, and with other works by the nine artists (see Discussion Questions #7-11 for linked lists). How did the modernist interpretations of New York City in the 1920s define it as the essence of modernity? How did the artists exalt, decry, or otherwise interpret urban modernity? How do the works mirror as well as interpret the Twenties?
A leading painter and photographer of the precisionist movement (he coined the term), Sheeler explored man's constructions from rural barns to urban skyscrapers to industrial factories. Compare Skyscrapers with Sheeler's 1920 photograph of the Park Row building, taken as a study for the painting. Look for the Park Row building in the art film Manhatta, which Sheeler produced with Paul Strand in 1920. How did Sheeler and Georgia O'Keeffe interpret the urban space defined by tall narrow monoliths? How is Sheeler's space less foreboding than O'Keeffe's?
A Russian-born American precisionist artist, Lozowick pronounced in an influential 1927 essay entitled "The Americanization of Art" that "the artist cannot and should not . . . attempt a literal soulless transcription of the American scene but rather give a penetrating creative interpretation of it . . ."2 How did Lozowick present a "penetrating" image of the city and avoid a "soulless transcription" in his lithograph? A tower of the Brooklyn Bridge sweeps through the lower left corner of the lithograph: what else sweeps through the image?
Foremost among precisionist photographers, Edward Steichen is credited with definitively positioning photography as an art form. Abandoning soft-focus "pictorialism," Steichen developed a style of precise line and defined light that was widely imitated in the 1920s and after. That he was, as writes art historian Sarah Lowe, "the master of theatrical lighting, sharply focused images, and arresting cropping"3 is clearly evident in this photograph, one of a series taken from his midtown Manhattan studio. What pulls us into the urban scene? What repels us? Why might Steichen have named it "Sunday Night"? Compare it with Alfred Stieglitz's 1931 photograph, From My Window at An American Place, North.
Georgia O'Keeffe, City Night, oil on canvas, 1926. MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS
A precisionist artist renowned for her Manhattan cityscapes and southwest U.S. landscapes and still lifes, O'Keeffe is a giant among American modernists of the early twentieth century. "O'Keeffe's forceful evocation of surging height and looming enclosure" in City Night, writes art historian Teresa Carbone, is "in keeping with her often-quoted statement that '[o]ne can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.'"4 How is New York "felt" in this painting? How did O'Keeffe use small distinct points of light amidst the domineering vertical planes to modulate the cityscape?
A precisionist artist with a decidedly singular style, Hopper created cityscapes in which a solitary human is central, as in his 1927 Automat, or, as in this canvas, easy to miss. A woman is seated in an open window of a brownstone apartment building, as seen from Williamsburg Bridge (completed in 1903, the second of three bridges connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan). Why are we given this vantage point? See the opposite vantage point in Hopper's 1952 Morning Sun? Are the women in melancholy, calm repose, dreamy thoughtfulness, despair? Are we to ask?
Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge, gelatin silver print [photograph], 1929.
One of the most abstract yet alluring photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, this image illustrates several "hallmarks of the modernist photographic aesthetic," writes art historian Sarah Lowe—"the use of dramatic cropping, extreme point of view, sharp focus, and uncluttered composition, in addition to modern subject matter."5 As with Evans's other photograph of the bridge published in Hart Crane's 1930 poem The Bridge, this black-and-white geometric study does not register at first as a bridge. Why is it modernist? What makes it effective? Compare it with black-and-white documentation photographs of the bridge taken in 1898, 1916, and 1982. What distinguishes art photography from documentary photography? (See Discussion Question #9 below to compare Evans's bridge photographs with the innumerable depictions of the iconic 1883 bridge).
In the more realist and non-precisionist cityscapes of Martin Lewis and Bertram Hartman (below), the financial district of Manhattan is contrasted with an opposing reality of urban life—in Lewis's painting, the gritty working-class neighborhoods. In Glow of the City, we view a young woman apparently mesmerized by the other-worldly glow of the new Chanin Building, the "crown" of which was internally illuminated at night and visible for miles. To the left, the dark spire of Trinity Church connotes a different otherworldliness. How is the woman responding to the "glow"? Compare her gaze and posture to the women in Hopper's From Williamsburg Bridge and Automat (above). Is she wistful, envious, hopeful, discouraged? Are we to know?
From a different vantage point, we view again the dark spire of the eighty-three-year-old Trinity Church amidst the sunlit skyscrapers of Wall Street. Completed in 1929 as the stock market approached collapse, Hartman's painting unabashedly signals the disjunct between man's spiritual and secular aspirations. Why did Hartman select a perspective that makes the spire appear higher in relation to the skyscrapers than it is in actuality (compare the painting with a 1916 photograph and a more recent aerial shot.) Note the proximity of the airplane and the cross atop the spire, and the hurried brushstrokes on the street that are people. How did Hartman use other details in this non-precisionist work?
Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Broadway, oil on canvas, 1929. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/NATIONAL HUMANITIES CENTER PDF
In a personal style unique among the modernists, Florine Stettheimer created four paintings in her Cathedrals series to showcase, and whimsically satirize, New York City's pre-eminence in entertainment, consumerism, finance, and art. In the first canvas, the "cathedrals of Broadway" are the lavish Times Square theaters built in the 1910s and 1920s, two of which opened just as "talkies" arrived to displace the silent film. How did Stettheimer both enshrine and satirize the undisputed center of the entertainment world at the height of the Twenties? Is she commenting on the transition to talkies? Compare The Cathedrals of Broadway with Stettheimer's second painting in the series, The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931).
|1922:||John Sloan, The City from Greenwich Village, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art)|
|1922:||John Marin, Lower Manhattan (Composing Derived from Top of Woolworth [Building], gouache and charcoal with paper cut-out attached with thread on paper (The Museum of Modern Art)|
|1925:||Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Street with Moon, oil on canvas (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)|
|1925:||Howard Thain, The Great White Way—Times Square, N.Y.C., oil on canvas (New York Historical Society)|
|1928-30:||Walker Evans, [Signs, New York], gelatin silver print (Museum of Modern Art)|
|ca. 1932:||Alfred Stieglitz, From My Window at An American Place, North, gelatin silver print [photograph] (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|1903:||Alfred Stieglitz, The Flatiron, photogravure (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|1911:||George Bellows, New York, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art)|
|1912:||John Marin, Movement, Fifth Avenue, watercolor (Art Institute of Chicago)|
|ca. 1912:||John Marin, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor and charcoal on paper (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|1915:||Max Weber, Rush Hour, New York, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art)|
|1917:||Paul Strand, New York, photogravure (Phillips Collection)|
|ca. 1912:||John Marin, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor and charcoal on paper (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
|ca. 1919-20:||Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, oil on canvas (Yale University Art Gallery/Picturing America)|
|1921:||Joseph Pennell, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor and chalk on paper (Brooklyn Museum)|
|1927:||Reginald Marsh, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor over graphite on cream laid paper (Princeton University Art Museum)|
||Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge, gelatin silver print [photograph] (Getty Museum)|
|1929:||Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge, gelatin silver print [photograph] (Getty Museum)|
|1929:||Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge, gelatin silver print [photograph] (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Picturing America)|
|1929:||Joseph Stella, American Landscape, oil on canvas (Walker Art Gallery)|
|1930:||Louis Lozowick, Brooklyn Bridge, lithograph (Smithsonian American Art Museum)|
|1936:||Berenice Abbott, Brooklyn Bridge . . . , photograph (Smithsonian American Art Museum)|
|1939:||Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, oil on canvas (Whitney Museum of American Art)|
|ca. 1924:||John Storrs, Forms in Space #1 (Whitney Museum of American Art)|
|1926:||Paul Frankl, skyscraper bookcase (Wolfsonian–Florida International University)|
|1927:||Paul Frankl, skyscraper bookcase (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|ca. 1928:||Paul Frankl, skyscraper table and bookcase (Carnegie Museum of Art)|
|late 1920s:||Paul Frankl, skyscraper step table (Brooklyn Museum)|
|ca. 1921:||Florine Stettheimer, Still Life with Flowers, oil on canvas (Walker Art Center)|
|1924:||Bertram Hartman, St. Tropez, watercolor with graphite underdrawing on paper (Brooklyn Museum)|
|1926:||Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife, gelatin silver print [photograph] (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|1929:||Martin Lewis, Sunday Garden Inspection, drypoint printed in black ink on laid paper (Detroit Museum of Art)|
|1929:||Louis Lozowick, Dead Tree, lithograph (Smithsonian American Art Museum)|
|1930:||Edward Hopper, Tables for Ladies, oil on canvas (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|ca. 1930:||Edward Steichen, Edna Best (actress), silver print [photograph] (Winnipeg Art Gallery)|
|1931:||Charles Sheeler, Americana, oil on canvas (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
|1931:||Georgia O’Keeffe, Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, oil on canvas (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|