The Twenties in America
Significance: The United States prospered throughout much of the 1920s, and artists reacted to the nation's material success in different ways. Some artists believed that the resulting cultural climate was shallow and money-driven and thus decamped to Paris in search of artistic inspiration, encountering and working within modern European art movements. Artists who stayed in the United States were particularly inspired by the search for national identity, and the artistic manifestations of this identity were diverse.
Often known as the Jazz Age, the decade of the 1920s was primarily an era of material prosperity in the United States, marked by a substantial migration from the country to the city and remembered for its popular jazz music and free-spirited flappers. At the same time, America was politically conservative and isolationist in its foreign policy throughout the 1920s. Immigration to the United States was limited, and the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the consumption and sale of liquor. Women won the right to vote, but progress toward racial equality was impeded by ongoing segregation and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Widespread purchasing and consumption occurred alongside worker discontent and labor strikes. The period was one of conflicting attitudes and ideologies, and these societal conflicts inspired and informed the art of the period.
The affluence of the 1920s enabled the establishment of sixty new art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Opening in 1929, MoMA focused on the avant-garde styles flourishing in Europe, especially the School of Paris, and ignored American art, as did other art museums. After her collection of modern American art was rejected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, art patron and socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney decided to found her own museum based on her collection. The Whitney Museum of American Art opened in 1931 and featured works by numerous artists of the previous decade, expressing themselves in a wide range of styles and portraying different aspects of the American experience.
Precisionism, the Machine, and Contemporary Life
The aftermath of World War I prompted a search for rationality in a shaken world. Precisionism was a response to this impulse, as artists turned to the logic, purity, and precision of a geometric style that had its roots in European cubism. This style was also influenced by the mathematical harmony of the machine, which was idealized in 1920s America in venues such as the 1927 Machine-Age Exposition in New York, where paintings were juxtaposed with actual machines and photographs of factories.
One particularly notable precisionist artist was Charles Sheeler, whose paintings were of buildings rendered in hard-edged, simplified geometric forms and earth-toned colors, frequently based on his photographs of New York skyscrapers. In the late 1920s, Sheeler documented the new Ford Motor Company plant outside of Detroit through photographs, later translating these images into paintings depicting utopian industry. Painter Charles Demuth also used the precisionist geometric style and imagery of the machine age in his work. In his 1927 painting My Egypt, he equates American factories with the Egyptian pyramids in terms of their grandeur and achievement. Demuth's most famous painting, The Figure 5 in Gold (1928), was inspired by poet William Carlos Williams and refers to his poem "The Great Figure," in which a fire engine racing through the city streets expresses the speed and modernity of contemporary urban experience.
Other artists also interpreted the modernity of the American city through the precisionist style. Louis Lozowick painted American cities he had visited, depicting a prominent feature of each place such as New York's skyscrapers, Pittsburgh's steel mills, and Minneapolis's grain silos. These paintings are characterized by geometric buildings, flattened space, and overlapping forms. While Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New York City in the 1920s, she also created geometric paintings of towering skyscrapers bathed in light.
Consumer culture also influenced and served as subject matter for American artists. Stuart Davis worked in an abstract style reminiscent of collage and synthetic cubism. Using flat, overlapping shapes and patterns such as painted grids, stripes, and dashes, Davis portrayed the modern urban environment through its common household objects, commercial packages, and signs. This is exemplified in his 1921 painting Lucky Strike, which features cigarettes, and in his 1927 Egg Beater series, which plays with the arrangement of colors, patterns, and lines across the surface of the canvas. Although living as an expatriate in France, Gerald Murphy also painted American products in a flat, hard-edged style that was reminiscent of advertising or billboards. A Gillette safety razor, a Parker Duofold fountain pen, and Three Stars matches are subjects of one of Murphy's colorful paintings.
Some artists focused more on the social realities of contemporary life. One of the best-known artists of this period, Edward Hopper, explored the loneliness and alienation of urban life and the loss of community in the modern city. Typical of his style are paintings of individuals sitting alone and isolated in interiors, such as in Automat (1927). Franco-American artist Guy Pène du Bois painted scenes of contemporary, cosmopolitan people in restaurants and theaters, but his figures also emit a sense of isolation even when depicted socializing in a group. In New York, Florine Stettheimer painted portraits of artist friends such as Marcel Duchamp as well as works on American icons such as Broadway and Wall Street, rendered in brilliant colors.
Inspiration from Nature
While New York and other large cities were the focus of much of 1920s art, a number of artists found inspiration in nature. Midwest native Georgia O'Keeffe began creating her famous flower paintings, which verged on the abstract and were rendered in sensual organic shapes, in the mid-1920s. Later in the decade, O'Keeffe spent summers at Mabel Dodge Luhan's ranch and artists' colony in Taos, New Mexico, and this experience is reflected in her paintings featuring cow skulls and other southwestern desert imagery. Native American influences and romantic notions of the western landscape also inspired artists drawn to the region, including Raymond Jonson and painter Andrew Dasburg, who visited Luhan's ranch in 1926 and created cubism-inspired images of a New Mexican village.
Other artists drew inspiration from different parts of the country. John Marin painted landscapes of Maine, as did Marsden Hartley. West Coast painter Henrietta Shore also turned to nature for inspiration in her art, painting flowers, landscapes, and other subjects. In 1925, photographer Alfred Stieglitz founded the Intimate Gallery in New York and exhibited artists such as O'Keeffe, Hartley, and Marin, believing them to express the essence of national culture through their art.
The Harlem Renaissance and African American Art
In the 1920s, many African Americans moved from the rural South to northern cities such as New York and Chicago, where artists found their means of expression in the Harlem Renaissance and the "new negro" movement. This movement was launched by Howard University professor and philosopher Alain Locke, who urged African Americans to make art a core part of their lives. Aiding this promotion of creativity was the New York-based William E. Harmon Foundation, which organized exhibitions and sponsored competitions and awards in the 1920s. While writers flourished in the Harlem Renaissance, visual artists were less common. One of the best known, Aaron Douglas, was a graphic artist who combined stylistic forms from traditional African art with modernism. Douglas designed book jackets for almost every major African American writer of the period and illustrated magazines such as Vanity Fair. Chicago painter Archibald Motley, Jr., portrayed the African American experience as urban and progressive, depicting nightclubs and crowded streets. Some art was inspired by more traditional African art forms, including sculptures by Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage.
American sculpture during this period was diverse and could not be associated with one specific movement, although much of it was still figural. Paul Manship drew from classical models and historical associations in his bronze sculptures, but he also incorporated the streamlined forms of the Art Deco style. John Storrs created sculptures influenced by the geometric forms of cubism and architecture. In contrast, Gaston Lachaise was known for his curvaceous sculptures of women of Amazonian proportions. Hugo Robus also focused on the human body while abstracting and simplifying its natural forms, as did the artist William Zorach. Although living in Paris for much of the 1920s, Alexander Calder was probably the best-known American sculptor of the period. During this time, he created dynamic wire sculptures that included portraits, and he is particularly known for creating a variety of circus performers, known collectively as Calder's Circus and now owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
During the 1920s, American artists searched for a national identity or style. Some artists adopted the geometric, machine age aesthetic of the precisionist movement, while others explored or created new styles. After the stock market crash of 1929, the failing economy affected artists' livelihoods, and their creative freedom was challenged. However, the 1920s established enduring themes in American art, including consumer culture, contemporary society and the city, and nature, as well as the focus on specific regions, such as the Southwest. These themes continued to influence American art in the following decades, and the art museums established during the 1920s remain an important part of the artistic legacy of the United States.
Baigell, Matthew. Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A selection of essays studying a variety of artists' works in relation to the social and cultural contexts in which the art was created.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1994. An overview of American art by a scholar in the field.
Dennison, Mariea Caudill. "Stuart Davis: Standard Brands and Product Identities in Some Paintings of the 1920s." Burlington Magazine 145, no. 1207 (2003): 696-704. An examination of the use of consumer brands in Davis's paintings in the 1920s.
Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. A succinct but thorough overview of the art of the period.
Haskell, Barbara. The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999. An overview of American art written by a curator of early American art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. An examination of American art in a sociopolitical context, with a focus on frequently overlooked groups such as women and minorities.
Shannon, David. Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. A general overview of the social, political, cultural, and economic history of the period.
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