IAC’s 28th Annual American Art Conference
May 9 – 11, 2024
445 Park Ave.
New York, NY
It can be argued that the “modern” in American Art, at least as we recognize it from our 21st-century vantage, had origins at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876.
Organizers of the Exhibition had excluded works by women from the Art Gallery building. As Stephanie Grauman Wolf writes, the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee responded by creating “their own pavilion, built with funds completely raised by women, with all exhibits created and operated by them.” This was truly modern in a general sense, celebrating women’s achievements across multiple domains and serving as a powerful argument for women’s autonomy.
It was also modern in a very specific way: at the Pavilion (as in the Art Gallery, where work by ceramicist Edwin Bennett was shown) painted ceramics and glass were exhibited alongside works on canvas, thus elevating what had heretofore been considered merely utilitarian to the realm of art.
The birth of the modern thus saw an increasing acceptance of varied media as appropriate to the creation of fine art. Photography would slowly emerge in the 20th century as an art form, leaving behind its primarily documentary purposing and giving us the work of Stieglitz and Steichen and later, of Strand and Abbott. Unusual materials such as chrome and aluminum would find their way into artistic production. Collage—by Stella and Dove, to name just two—would emerge as a respected form. Works on paper achieved new-found respect. So too would textiles, in works ranging from those of Associated Artists under Candace Wheeler, to the carpet of Radio City Music Hall, to the Mid-century Modern of Florence Knoll and Ruth Adler Schnee.
Radio City Musical Hall, like many of the movie palaces, is a later manifestation of an important expression of the modern from the late 19th century: the gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Whistler led the way with his “Peacock Room.” Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White would follow.
At the same time, older media would come to enjoy new life. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw what might be considered a rebirth of the mural. Think Cassatt’s progressive “Modern Woman” for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life” for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Similarly, Maxfield Parrish’s “Old King Cole” was a signal contribution to the eponymous bar at the St. Regis, likewise Everett Shinn’s mural at the Plaza’s Oak Bar and Ludwig Bemelmans’ at the Carlyle. And this new life of the mural would be accompanied by a rediscovery of the ancient tradition of true fresco. Tempera, too, would see a resurgence.
The modern also brought new approaches to rendering its subjects, whether in the stylized, attenuated figures of Dewing and Tryon in the late 19th century, the rounded figures of Sloan, Speicher, Kroll, Pène du Bois, and Bellows in the 1920’s or, later, in the highly stylized two- and three-dimensional figures of Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett followed a long line of important American women sculptors who emerged beginning in late 19th century, including Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Harriet Frishmuth, and Anna Hyatt Huntington. The number and prominence of these women was yet another expression of modernity.
The modern would also see a democratization of art, a broadening of subject matter. Artists such as Dana Gibson, Dean Cornwell, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Jessie Willcox Smith captured (and defined) American aspirations in the popular press.
Modernism, but one expression of the modern, glorified the machine age and the skyscraper in, for example, the works of Sheeler, Driggs, O’Keeffe, and Demuth. The modern saw expression of interior and dreamlife in the work of the Surrealists and Magic Realists such as Cadmus, Evergood, and Albright.
The emergence of the modern in American art can thus be traced to changes in perception of what constituted art, the forms it could take and how—and not least, by whom—it might be created. This change in perception, and the art it made possible, is the focus of IAC’s 28th annual American Art Conference.