In both England and America, the assimilation of Cubism had to be accomplished in two stages. The first stage involved a sudden exposure of the Cubist viewpoint to artists and a public who were, for the most part, unaware of the innovations that had revolutionized the making and experiencing of art on the Continent; the second stage required a less ardent, more sustained consideration of the new problems posed by the Cubist world. In both countries, the introduction of Cubism was made at about the same time and with a comparably shocking abruptness -- in England through the Vorticist movement of 1914, in America through the Armory Show of 1913, which exhibited to an unprepared public the extreme avant-garde art of Europe and -- America.
The Vorticist movement, led by the writer-artist Wyndham Lewis ( 1884- 1957), exploded upon the English public in 1914 with the vociferous modernity that characterized the outburst of Futurism in Italy some four years earlier. Vorticism, as shouted through the manifestoes of its literary vehicle, Blast, was belligerently in favor of that energy and mechanization which the Futurists venerated; but, in order to assert its independence from the Italians, it criticized them for offering only a new form of Impressionism, for showing machines as moving blurs rather than as lucidly angular, cold, and impersonal objects. The Vorticists' means of exalting the machine world depended, like the Futurists', upon Cubism, the style that appeared to obliterate completely the many vestiges of nineteenth-century realism that survived the year 1900.
Like most of the "isms" that erupted around 1910, Vorticism was as intense as it was short-lived, producing its most radical verbal and pictorial statements within a few years. A typical example of this heated moment of English modernism can be seen in one of Lewis' illustrations to a 1914 folio edition of Shakespeare Timon of Athens. Ironically perpetuating the traditional penchant of English artists for literary illustration, Lewis attacks his theme with an antitraditional torrent of spiky Cubist planes whose dashing, metallic edges culminate in the so-called "vortex" of the upper left-hand corner. And often, in the same series of illustrations, Lewis even moved from Cubism to totally abstract patterns of jagged, dynamic planes.
The aggressive iconoclasm and rather callow flavor of the Vorticist movement could hardly be more alien to England's most distinguished Cubist, Ben Nicholson (b. 1894), who was born a decade too late to participate in the first fervors of modernism. Working at a less crucial historical moment, Nicholson slowly and patiently considered the premises of Cubism. Like Villon and Feininger, he offers a cautious, subtle art of refinement within a narrow and perfected range rather than an impetuous art that risks adventure and heresy; and, like these Continental masters, he has remained loyal to the self-imposed restrictions of a Cubist viewpoint.
Unlike Villon and Feininger, however, Nicholson did not begin to mature artistically until the late 1920s. A drawing of about 1928, Banks Head--Castagnola, already illuminates something of the distinctive qualities of Nicholson's work. As the very title implies, Nicholson reveals a familiarly English commitment to observed fact, for the array of breakfast objects presented here is not the generalized grouping of table top and china that we might expect in a French still life but a specific document of data observed at a particular time and in a particular place that even includes the window view of a Swiss lake.
With an almost Pre-Raphaelite instinct for literal fact, Nicholson scrupulously records the details of a coffee pot, a flowered plate, the cracked edge of an opened boiled egg, and even the words on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes; but at the same time, a contradictory instinct toward simplification renders these forms in delicate, hairbreadth outlines whose chasteness recalls the earlier English line drawings of Blake and Flaxman and whose weightlessness and transparent intersections approach the floating, incorporeal world of Cubism.
In a casual drawing like this, Nicholson feels no need to achieve a coherent degree of stylization and, as a result, he vacillates -- not unlike Reynolds -- between an inherent dependence upon precisely observed fact and a desire to transform this fact into more generalized statement. In his finished paintings, however, such contradictions are often eliminated or, at times, surprisingly reconciled. In a canvas of 1932, Au Chat Botté, Nicholson's dependence on particularized fact is far less pronounced, though still evident. As in Braque Café-Bar of 1919, a still life is disclosed through what appears to be the window of a café whose name and location are identified by the letters that float upon the picture surface. With familiar Cubist irony, these three-dimensional table objects are far more immaterial than the twodimensional words in their midst. So fragile, in fact, are the threadlike outlines that define the eyes and mouth of the head at the left, the lip and handle of the jug in the center, and the bodiless mandolin at the right, that they appear to vanish, even after being discerned, into the quiet but vibrant surface that represents both a transparent pane of glass and an opaque tilted table top.
If such passages as the curtain at the left or the relatively detailed description of the mandolin at the right suggest vestiges of Nicholson's respect for concrete fact, other of his still lifes arrive at a more consistent level of generalization in which the intrusion of particular objects is no longer felt. This happens in a still life of 1929-35, where the array of table-top objects has been purified to a degree of exquisite precision that reminds one of the most rarefied Purist drawing of Ozenfant. Mug, bowl, bottle, and table are transformed into frail phantoms of objects whose abstemious geometries are defined only by razorthin outlines.
The spatial organization, too, is exacting in its refinement, for the sequence of planes created by these overlappings of transparent and opaque forms occurs within a space so shallow that its calibration transcends the capacities of all but the most sensitive eye. And if these extreme discretions of line and plane evoke the hyper-aestheticism of the Whistlerian tradition, so, too, does Nicholson's color. By comparison with these muted variations of beige, white, and gray, alleviated only by the most quiet of reds, even Picasso's and Braque's palettes of 1911 seem rich and sensuous. Indeed, in such a work Nicholson achieves a degree of attenuated sensibility that is almost puritanical beside its Continental Cubist counterparts.
Pressed one step further, this pursuit of a lean and perfect harmony could annihilate the object entirely, and often, in his transformation of empirical fact into an abstract geometry, Nicholson presents the latter alone. In the White Relief of 1938, for example, he moves from the illusion of still-life objects in a shallow pictorial space to the actual construction of pure circles and rectangles in a shallow relief. Yet, unlike Mondrian, whose experience of Cubism led to a complete rejection of any specific objects in his work, Nicholson never remained consistently within this austere realm of pure geometric relations but moved back and forth, like Villon, to the tangible realities of observed nature.
In the 1940s, Nicholson, in a most English way, arrived at a compromise solution that would peacefully combine the most particularized data of perception with the ostensibly contradictory viewpoint of complete nonobjectivity. This may be seen in Mousehole of 1947, which moves Picasso's and Matisse's Mediterranean window views with foreground still lifes to a vista of the Cornish coast near the English artists' colony of St. Ives. For here there are passages of a geometric purity that could almost be, excerpts from a nonobjective canvas (such as the overlapping curved and straight-edged planes that offer so generalized a description of the bottle, bowl, and mug in the fight foreground), whereas, at the same time, Nicholson leads our eye to an expanse of sailboats, coastal hills, and rural houses whose topographical exactitude evokes the most detailed visual observations of such early nineteenth-century English landscape artists as Constable, Cotman, and Girtin.
It is not surprising that the closest parallels to the inflections that England gave to Cubism should be found in America, the country whose pre-Cubist tradition had been most closely related to England's. The course of Cubism in America began after 1910, as in England, with a sudden and unprepared explosion of modernity, and was then followed by a quieter assimilation that often combined both the ascetic refinement and the ultimate commitment to a particularized reality so conspicuous in Nicholson. The Armory Show of 1913 provided perhaps an even more traumatic introduction to the avant-garde than did the Vorticists in England, for this show, which traveled from New York to Chicago and Boston, abruptly disclosed the strange new world of masters like Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, and Picabia. The difficult task of the American artist was to digest these foreign innovations.
Again it was Cubism that carried the greatest impact in the awakening of American art to contemporary European developments, though, as might be expected in the most mechanized environment of the contemporary world, it was a Cubism strongly tinged with a Futurist flavor. The early work of Max Weber ( 1881-1961), who had firsthand experience of the Parisian avant-garde between 1905 and 1909, exemplifies this hybrid viewpoint, for his paintings use fundamentally Cubist means to evoke the dynamic experience of the New York milieu. In his Rush Hour, New York of 1915, the spectator is thrust into the most frenetic confusion of the city's daily peaks of mechanical and human activity. Rolling wheels, skyscrapers, station platforms are fragmented and recomposed as the whirring, metallic engine of a vast urban machine; and, in particular, the sensation of rushing motion in all directions is suggested by the repetitive sequences of spiky, angular patterns that appear to roar past the viewer like an express train.
Even within the context of a more static situation, as in the Chinese Restaurant of the same year, 1915, Weber conveys the hectic velocity of the great metropolis. By comparison with Picasso's contemporary Rococo Cubism, whose patterned enrichments parallel this work, Weber's scene is jarring and harsh in its movement, and the blurred sequence of faces woven into the brilliant fabric similarly conveys kinetic sensations. Like Carrà Milan Galleria, Weber 's approach is almost documentary, for the milieu of the Chinese restaurant that he re-creates has a particularity of setting that clearly distinguishes it from Parisian Cubism. Here all the gaudy décor of the restaurant is specifically recorded, from the checkered tiles of the floor to the scalloped eaves of the pagoda in the upper right.
The very idea of painting a Chinese restaurant in New York speaks for the close commitment to reality that characterized not only most American painting in general but American Cubism in particular. Like Weber, most American Cubists depend on a visual stimulus that is much more particularized than the Parisian world of still-life objects or even the urban world of Léger, which is never one city but all cities. The New York scene provided an especially rich opportunity to convey the drama of new urban experience with the comparably new vocabulary of Cubism, and the most assertively modern monuments of the city were often recorded. Joseph Stella ( 1877-1946), like Weber, devoted most of his energies to just such subjects; and his Brooklyn Bridge of 1917-18 may exemplify this outlook.
By contrast with the earlier view of Brooklyn Bridge by Gleizes, Stella's bridge is a record of a particularized experience. If the French Cubist generalizes the bridge to a point almost beyond identification, Stella remains within the realm of the specific, for the Gothic towers and the sweeping pattern of straight and curved cables readily permit recognition of this great feat of nineteenth-century engineering. Even more, Stella's interpretation is less detached, for he experiences the bridge subjectively in terms of the violent sensation of a motorist who speeds across the blinding network of interpenetrating beams and arches, roads, and traffic lights. In this way, the deep perspective of the diminishing ribbons of roads and cables is contracted with a vertiginous speed that assails the spectator even more dramatically than Weber Rush Hour, New York.
The same combination of Cubist fragmentation and urban movement is apparent in John Marin ( 18701953), whose early work in particular stressed the dynamic potentialities of Cubism as applied to the New York scene. A watercolor view of the Woolworth Building of 1912 is an American counterpart of such French icons of modernity as Delaunay Eiffel Tower, especially since the Gothic skyscraper, then nearing completion, was at the time the tallest building in the world. With directness and vigor, Marin's lunging brushstroke shatters the mass of this gravity-defying tower of steel so that the building almost dissolves into the teeming street life below and the agitated sweep of wind and clouds above. Here the Cubist merger of mass and void conveys the dynamic urban interplay of speeding automobiles and soaring skyscrapers.
In a later watercolor view of 1922, Marin ascends to the top of the Woolworth Building and looks down upon the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Once more, as in La Fresnaye Conquest of the Air, the language of Cubism, with its freedom from the laws of gravity, is particularly suited to the aerial experience of our century. From Marin's dizzy vantage point the familiar relations of up and down are controverted and the spectator is confronted rather with a seething eruption of kinetic forces that burst outward like an exploding planet. In keeping with the American tradition, Marin's record of Manhattan is topographically more exact than one might first expect from its ostensibly abstract translation of streets and buildings into plunging and colliding axes of movement; the sewed-on paper sunburst of the foreground refers to the golden dome of the Pulitzer Building (now destroyed) and, to the right, even the colonnaded facade of the United States Customs House can be located next to the great traffic artery of Broadway.