EARLY IN THE 20th century American artists made two profoundly important discoveries--one, that American life held rich material for the painter, which had not yet been explored; the other, that art could be built out of pure form and color alone. Nearly all American painting since then has been deeply affected by one or both of these twin forces, often by their conflict and interaction.
American life had, of course, been the subject of many American painters in preceding generations. From Mount and Bingham in the first half of the 19th century to Homer and Eakins, who worked well into the 20th, genre painting--the portrayal of scenes from everyday life--was a popular branch of art. But our traditional genre suffered from two serious disabilities. In the first place it had never, with a few exceptions, done more than scratch the surface of America's complex society.
In the East it had dealt almost entirely with the smiling aspects of rural life; in the West with adventure and the frontier. In the second place, it had lost its creative vigor as time went on. Homer and Eakins abandoned it early in their careers. Their lesser contemporaries--men like J. G. Brown, Thomas Hovenden and E. L. Henry--pushed it in the direction of a nostalgic sentimentality. By 1900 genre painting was pretty thoroughly divorced from reality, and particularly from the urban reality of American life.
It was, therefore, essentially a new discovery when, early in the 20th century, a group of young painters turned for their subjects to the pattern of common existence in New York--to its movie houses, shops, parks and restaurants, its varied and strident humanity. Sloan, Glackens, Bellows and the other social realists, as they came to be called, painted the city not because it was new, but because they were genuinely in love with it. They painted it directly, with warmth and gusto, and in doing so they restored to genre its spontaneity and its essential truth. Believing with Robert Henri that art "is the trace of those who have led their lives," they worked from personal knowledge and experience; through their example they broadened and revitalized the nativist philosophy of art which had been common in the early 19th century and which was to flower again in the 1920's and '30's.
It was a different group of American painters that discovered in European modernism the then revolutionary concept of art as pure form (abstraction) and the only slightly less radical use of free distortions for emotional effect (expressionism). The formal values of art were not, of course,' unknown in 19th-century America. From Allston to La Farge, the late Renaissance traditions of color and design had influenced many of our artists in various ways. Furthermore, it was generally conceded in our esthetic theory of the time that the painter had the right to alter nature for expressive effect and to distort visual reality in order to give it emotional meaning. But it is important to realize how strict were the limits imposed and accepted in a century dominated by naturalism. Men like Quidor, Ryder and Blakelock, who carried distortion beyond these limits, were doomed to neglect through most of their lives. To some extent this was true in European painting also, but there the pattern began to change during the century's last quarter. In France, the postimpressionists sought to transform the visual realism of impressionism into an art of stronger formal values, and in doing so they started an orderly evolution which led to cubism, fauvism and thence to the whole broad field of modern abstract and expressionist art.
In America no such logical development took place. There had always been a time lag between European innovations and their influence on American art. By the 1890's our painters were just beginning to experiment rather timidly with the pointillism of the French impressionists. Only a decade later a sizeable group of young American artists studying in Paris were converted, one after another, to the most extreme forms of modernism--that is, to cubism and fauvism--starting at almost the very moment that these new movements emerged in 1905-08. By 1913 a large selection of modern European painting had been brought to this country for the famous Armory Show, which extended the influence of abstract and expressionist art to a still wider circle. In those few years at the opening of the century we wiped out the traditional delay of nearly a generation between European and American art forms, but in doing so we skipped the whole quarter-century of experiment which had led to the birth of modernism abroad. The result was a revolution rather than an evolution for both the American artist and the American public.
It is apparent that our twin discoveries of the early 1900's--the artistic resources of American life and the formal language of art--tended to pull artists in opposite directions. To the social realists, design was principally a means for telling a story or creating mood. Stylistically the social realists were not venturesome, being content, for the most part, with the broad, painterly handling which they had inherited from Duveneck, Chase and Henri. The quality that gave their work enduring vitality was their enthusiasm for the new vein in American life which they were exploring--an enthusiasm tinged with humor, satire and an immense relish for the unconventional aspects of humanity that the city afforded. Their art was colloquial and dramatic, but it was seldom distinguished in a formal sense.
One could scarcely find a greater contrast than the work of those American modernists who discarded all subject matter for abstract design, or who wrenched it into the distortions of expressionism. Their anonymous figures, still lifes, compositions and collages laid no claim to a distinctively American quality although, as we shall see, they had their own character which was often quite different from European work in the same vein. But the point is that these young Americans felt they were breaking away from native tradition, not trying to revitalize it, that they were embarking on an international experiment and creating a new art form that had no connection with their past. To all appearances, their motivations and directions were diametrically opposed to those of the social realists.
Yet as time goes by and we see the early years of the century in better perspective, the oppositions begin to seem less important and certain underlying bonds emerge more clearly. For one thing, most of the American modernists were not willing to go so far as Macdonald-Wright, for instance, in giving up subject matter entirely. It was too long a first step and led, perhaps, into too frightening a void. Many, like Feininger and Weber, stayed generally within semi-abstract limits, keeping recognizable elements of nature in their strongly patterned canvases--as indeed the cubists themselves had done at the beginning. Others, like Dove and Hartley, built their abstractions about symbols which suggested meanings and moods beyond purely esthetic ones. Furthermore, many of the modernists returned to America and became as deeply concerned with its character and its spirit as the social realists. Often the interests of the two groups converged closely. The city had the same fascination for Marin, Stella and Weber that it had for Sloan, Glackens and Bellows. There was, of course, a difference: the social realists were chiefly concerned with its human drama, the modernists with its soaring buildings, its lights, its tempo, its total impact on the senses. But in a very real sense, these were only opposite sides of the same coin. Both groups were spiritually akin in their romantic response to the city's aliveness and in their common attempt to express its dynamic vitality.
Dynamism, while a dangerously vague word, offers, indeed, the best single description of the predominant quality in the creative art of this country during the early years of the century. It applies not only to the drama of the city as it was interpreted by both modernists and realists, but also to a large part of our early abstract painting which dealt with entirely different themes. It is significant that the two European movements which had the greatest influence on American artists at this time were Orphism and futurism, and both of these were attempts to infuse dynamic motion. into the relatively static patterns of cubism. The American Synchromist movement, founded by Morgan Russell and Macdonald-Wright, was so similar in its aims and methods to Orphism that there was no practical difference between them. Both used color relations to create a sense of depth and of receding or advancing planes. Futurism was even more deeply concerned with motion, which it depicted by graphic symbols such as curving force lines or repeated chevrons. It had a close follower here in Joseph Stella and exerted an appreciable influence on Demuth, Feininger, Weber and a number of lesser men. Even the comparatively flat abstractions of Hartley and Dove, which seem at first glance closer to cubism, are full of strong tensions which thrust against the plane of the picture and create conflicting movements. In other words the Americans turned instinctively to the more dynamic and romantic forms of European abstraction, and while they followed these closely at times, more often they devised their own modifications which further heightened the dynamism.
Today the individual experiments of the American modernists seem to have much in common, but historically they never coalesced (except for Synchro-mism's brief life) into a well-defined movement with an articulate program, an acknowledged leader, a clear-cut membership or an official apologist. That was the European pattern, not the American. Alfred Stieglitz gave them faithful support at his small 291 Gallery, and a few others helped from time to time. But for the most part the Americans had to fight a piecemeal battle against public indifference, general misunderstanding and violent professional hostility. Even the social realists had been greeted as "apostles of ugliness" in a country still dominated by an academic art of polite conventions; the abstract and expressionist painters were "madmen" or "charlatans." It is small wonder that many of them became discouraged and that a widespread reaction set in soon after the close of the first World War. In a different cultural climate the results might have been otherwise, for the solid accomplishment of our pioneer modernists looks more impressive today than it did in their own time or in the period of reaction following it. Indeed it begins to appear that they created an art which was considerably more than the sum of their borrowings, and peculiarly related to the American mind of that generation.