Arthur Dove, Untitled, 1944, oil and tempera, 21 x 28 inches
Recently, a friend mentioned to me that my current compositions reminded her of this Dove painting, which interested me a lot. Arthur Dove was an early American modernist, who worked with abstract imagery for most of his career. His paintings are generally based on natural forms and often have a mystical bent, so I don't usually think of him as an influence. But this painting, with its circular ochre center, arms radiating, surrounded by red and blue windowed forms, seemed very related to my work. After seeing this painting, I looked at this photograph I'd just taken:
and there it was: a confluence of forms. I see that little fillip on the upper right as an organic addition, a little creature inhabiting the machine. I have previously written a post on Charles Sheeler, an American precisionist painter whose work I greatly admire; I also feel a kinship, as an American and a painter of machinery in whose forms I try to find abstract elements, to other American modernist painters. So I thought I'd present a few paintings of this era as an homage to their pioneering work of the early 20th century.
The New York art world busted loose of convention, found itself intensely shaken, by the Armory Show of 1913, which first exhibited modern European painters such as Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse alongside American artists. Here is an excellent site to guide you through that show, which opened America to modern abstract art. It was the beginning of a move from Impressionism and the Ash Can School to a new way of seeing, based on Cubism.
Louis Lozowick, Roofs and Sky, 1939, color silkscreen, 10 x 13 inches
These two works, by Charles Demuth and Louis Lozowick, both in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exemplify a focus of American painters: looking at the overlooked parts of our world related to industry and modern life. They went up to rooftops to gather images of things not usually seen, making them dramatic characters on the artistic stage. Demuth uses line and flat forms to abstract his objects, while Lozowick simplifies; both animate the objects: Machinery with undulating arms and Roofs and Sky by creating an intense sentinel presence, as though Darth Vader had landed on a NYC roof.
Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1921, oil on canvas, 33 1/4 x 18 inches
The work of Stuart Davis seems to me to be very close to that of European modernists, especially cubist collage, in his use of text and objects of ordinary life. His paintings are more akin to jazz, with their bright colors and rhythms.
Elsie Driggs, Queensborough Bridge, 1927, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 30 1/4 inches
Elsie Driggs was considered a Precisionist, along with Sheeler, Demuth, Lozowick and others, who saw industry as a positive force in modern life and a essential subject for painting. They used differing levels of abstraction, generally with clearly defined edges of forms, hence the "precision". Sometimes it seems as though they didn't really understand the cubism they were trying to emulate, as with Driggs and Demuth's radiating lines in the images reproduced here. But what is clear is the celebration of the newly built––here a bridge anointed with streaming light––and the power of the machine, a romance now long dead.
Some American modernists looked around them for subjects, finding interest in land or city, seeing it through eyes tempered by acquaintance with European art. I've always liked the work of Oscar Bluemner, whose paintings are saturated with rich color and made up of geometric, weighty forms. O'Keefe has become such an artistic institution in the United States that it's hard to remember that her work was very avant garde for the time. Her early paintings of New York City are marvelous evocations of light and space, dramatic and claustrophobic, true portraits of the city.
These are my ancestors. There is the clarity of space and form, the insistence on the object, in their work that I associate with an American style; these characteristics go back to American Luminist landscape of the 19th century. "What is American about American Art?" is a topic for another day, but I believe these painters took a European style and made it their own, bequeathing to us a great tradition of looking at the modern world through a simplifying lens.