By 1920, despite the giant shove of the Armory Show and the nudges of the Forum and the Independent exhibitions, native modernism was dying out. This period, from about 1910 to about 1925, has been called "the first wave of abstract art in America," as indeed it was. Some critics have concluded, as one of them puts it, that our modern pioneers of modern art had only a "superficial understanding, no matter how enthusiastic, . . . [of the] abstract art in Paris," and that therefore, "as soon as the surprise faded most of them abandoned it." The early work of these pioneers stands as the most effective of all rebuttals of such an opinion, which shows little general understanding of that period in American art history.
Neglected by dealers, ignored by museums, passed over by collectors, unknown by the public, ridiculed and pressured by more conventional, more successful, fellow painters, the advanced artists in America lived in a cold and hostile climate. Even worse, they lived apart even from one another. Here the easy café life of Paris--the stimulating argument, the fruitful discussion--seemingly could not exist. Our sidewalks are reserved for walking. And let artists, ragged-poor anyway, try sitting overtime at a table with a waiter waving the check and newer corners staring holes in their backs! Not "surprise" fades in such a climate--bit by bit will fades, and enthusiasm, and vision.
So, by the early 1920's, the brightest of our native talents were in a near-fatal position. Max Weber and Alfred Maurer were in virtual destitution, unable to raise steerage funds to return to Paris, dependent upon crumbs for support. Maurer could not even borrow the little money needed to bring over all the brilliant work he had left in Paris in his studio: it eventually disappeared, and the few surviving pictures were picked up years later in secondhand stores in France. Weber painted on paper and cardboard, and no one bought his pictures, anyway. When he could not buy paint, he drew with charcoal and crayon and fought on.
Maurer, who had won a fifteen-hundred-dollar Carnegie prize in 1901 for conventional painting and had then deserted it all to follow the new star, was even more sorely hit than Weber. The onetime wit and dandy of Montmartre became a tortured and obsessed man, a sunken-eyed scarecrow driven by a demon. In his last decade Alfred Maurer alternated between fits of madness and lucid periods when he painted pictures that are strangely haunting. Some are cubist still-lifes, architectural and yet transparent, as if materialized by a spiritualist medium. In others he seemed to return to his earlier portraits, but his hand could no longer paint, as it once had painted, like Whistler's. Staring-eyed heads fill the canvas, side by side like a movie film run amok. In 1931 he hanged himself. This was the man who, like Max Weber, had had full fellowship with the young revolutionaries in Paris, had rubbed elbows with Matisse, Picasso, and Braque.
As for Weber today, whatever late plaudits and fame have come and may come to him, they will all be, in one sense, too little and too late. They will never quite fill the empty years, the years when in final despair he gave up the most advanced phases of his work. The strong but more figurative work that followed represents the investment of a large part of Weber's maturity. It is no more than natural that in public statements he is moved to defend it as a step of progress over his cubist period. But when he shows a visitor around his house, Max Weber returns to his cubist pictures again and again. His volubility ceases, he gazes at them, into them, affectionately and yet almost as if they had been painted by someone else in another time.
It is true that in Paris immediately after World War I there was a temporary return on the part of many to highly representational painting, best exemplified by Picasso's Classic Period figure paintings. Cubism and abstraction appeared to have run their courses. Actually, they had paused, as one might say, to get their bearings again, to try to recapture the spirit of what Chirico called "the subtle and fertile pre-war years." In America there was not a pause but a cessation as, one by one, most of our early modernists gave up the unequal struggle.
There was Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who with Morgan Russell founded in 19 2 the style known as synchromism. It is treated today as little more than a historical oddity, but it was the only independent modern art movement launched by Americans in the pre-war years, and it compelled enough interest and respect to be given three separate exhibitions in 1913, only one year after its launching. These were at Munich; in Paris, at Bernheim-Jeune; and in New York, at the Carroll Gallery.
Earlier the same year, synchromist canvases had been shown at the Salon des Indépendants as well as at the Armory Show. Developing out of cubism into explorations of pure color, synchromism and Robert Delaunay's orphism were parallel movements. Synchromism, in particular, using highpitched hues, exploited the advancing and receding qualities, respectively, of warm and cool colors to fill with abstract, prismatic movement the shallow space that the cubists had discovered. On the basis of comparative accomplishment, synchromism deserves the same respect as orphism, interest in which has recently awakened.
Synchromism flourished until 1916, at which time Macdonald-Wright returned to America. Russell remained in Paris through two world wars, not to return until thirty years later. With its two leaders separated, the movement died. Russell, returning to representational painting in the general pause or lull that followed the Armistice in Paris, never found his way back to abstract work.
Back in America the other half of the creative partnership, Macdonald-Wright, saw synchromism briefly glorified in 1916 at the Forum Exhibition, but then began to run into the same difficulties that all the modernists were facing at home. By 1920 he had given up abstract work, and then for years he veered uncertainly like a migratory bird lost from the flock. Synchromism, it seemed, had had its brief day and would remain a direction never to be fully explored. As late as 1944 Macdonald-Wright could state: "Synchromism was the first movement to adumbrate the use of formal color in abstract design. My aims were to compose in depth by means of the natural three-dimensional extensions of the chromatic gamut." And could add with unfathomable regret: "I still feel that a related color design is the characteristic expression of our age."
It now appears, however, that the last chapter on Stanton Macdonald-Wright and synchromism may yet have to be written. In 1956, at a one-man show at the Los Angeles County Museum, Wright is suddenly found to have reembraced his own synchromism. At the age of sixty-six he exposes a group of forceful canvases that are simultaneously youthful and mature, full of what Jules Langsner, writing in Art News, calls "lyrical freshness and vitality.
In the long years after 1916 Macdonald-Wright seems to have wandered far, not only on the earth but in the uncharted space of metaphysics--finding himself at last in Zen Buddhism. From such extremes as administering the WPA Art Project in his region to the mastering of the Chinese and Japanese languages and from ten years of professorship in Oriental art at the University of California at Los Angeles to lectures in Japan about modern art, he searched for the lost thing.
At last, as Langsner writes, "on his return from Japan in 1953 . . . Wright experienced an astonishing metamorphosis." Perhaps there is something to be said for--rather than against--escapism. Or, at least, for the circuitous route. Fleeing America, Macdonald-Wright found America and himself as well. There is no mapping of private roads--the enigmatic wanderings that bring men home again at last.
But it is a long way and a lonely way and possible only for some. The 1920's in America were a dreadful time when the American artists back from Paris were slapped in the face by arrogant disbelief, when even faith like stone was eaten away, grain by grain, by the muddy, stale water of the mundane. It was the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis for a while. And then America, slowly awakening to modern art, saw Paris instead of international art, and our internationalists were passed by simply because, like prophets, they had come home.
It was all too easy, simply and literally, to starve. By the mid-1920's sick of poverty, Joseph Stella, for example, went into decorative figure painting. His masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge of 1917-18, was done in paint, eked out by cheap crayon, on a bed sheet! And yet Stella, alone and in America, had continued futurism for years after the war in Europe had destroyed its international leader, Umberto Boccioni, and brought the movement substantially to an end.
Among all the achievements of futurism, Stella's view of the futurists' elected material--force, movement, light, and sound in the twentieth-century world--was the most natural, the least affected. Whereas the futurists in Milan were celebrating the industrialization just then beginning to transform the Renaissance cities of Italy, Stella was brought up in an America already heavily industrialized. Even before 1909 he was executing drawings of factories. His point of view was contemporary and not, like that of the Italian futurists, essentially romantic.
The early modern work of men like Weber, Maurer, Macdonald-Wright, and Stella greatly needs to be set into the proper perspective in an international sense. This will require a complete re-evaluation, impartial and neither proAmerican nor pro-European. In the process some names unknown today are likely to emerge. One of these might well be that of John Covert, born in 1882 in Pittsburgh, who was an organizer of the Independent Show of 1917. He exhibited then and at several successive shows. Then he and his work disappeared.
Marcel Duchamp, years later, would write of him in terms he would not use lightly: "Among the young American painters who, in 1915, joined forces with the pioneers of the new art movements, John Covert was an outstanding figure from the beginning. Instead of following and adopting one of the new expressions, he found his personal form in a combination of painting and sculptured reliefs made of superimposed planes. If this technique, as such, showed Covert's imagination, far more important was the direction given to the material by his idea: the unrolling of interwoven surfaces. The same process was used later in several institutes of mathematics to illustrate the non-Euclidean geometries." Duchamp classified Covert's work as "an American interpretation of . . . new esthetic needs."