The modern age had begun with the Industrial Revolution. Inventions and an avant-garde spirit led artists to expand their understanding of their craft, imbuing it with an abstract, psychological, and philosophical underpinning. Authors such as John Ruskin argued for the importance of aesthetics. The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century saw a settling of European nations as events such as the World's Fair and the freer movement of trade brought the world's ideas closer together. The influence of trade and colonialism became evident as artists looked to and collected artifacts from Africa, China, and Japan. The aesthetics of these various cultures further influenced artists by informing the different visual and formal qualities that were available.

The shrinking world soon led to growing political tensions that came to an explosive result with the Great War (World War I) and later World War II. World War I changed the way that mankind understood battle and the horrors of war, as did the end of World War II with the dropping of nuclear bombs in Japan. Between these major wars, events such as the Great Depression also gave mankind a greater understanding of the impact of industrialism and the growing global economy.

Later in the twentieth century, social movements such as the Suffragist movement, Civil Rights, Feminism, and others became an influential drive for many. Social movements highlighted the importance of the individual in society, and furthered the philisophical purpose of art throughout the Postmodern age.

In the later 20th century the world grew even smaller with the technological revolution and the beginning of the digital age. Cultures from all corners of the globe began to be recognized and influential in visual culture. The lens of history also beame difficult to focus as newer trends were difficult to narrow down in relation to the earlier concept of the avant-garde and the often considered linear trajectory of historical trends.


The nineteenth century was filled with industrialism and increased economic and political interaction worldwide. This produced an increased faith in science. There was also an acute sense of Western cultures’ lack of fixity or permanence due to the rapid expansion, faster modes of transportation, and increased social mobility. Also during this time, Charles Darwin put forth his ideas on evolution and Karl Marx emphasized the nature of the continuing sequence of conflicts and resolutions forming a shifting reality.

The artistic direction referred to as modernism soon developed out of this changing world. Modernism refers to the many stylistic movements in art from the middle nineteenth century until the beginnings of the postmodern movement in the later twentieth century. Modernism in art thus coincides with the advent of what we call modernity, which is associated with the understanding of the impermanence of the world. Artists in period were aware of the relationship between their art and those of previous generations. Art was produced to call attention to art, the flat surface of canvas, the shape of the support, the properties of the media. Modern artists accepted their precedents, but rebelled against the Academies that focused on the tradition of art based on previous generations rather than creating new and unique visions. Many modern artists thus took ownership of the term avant-garde, a French military term referring to the front line in battle. Such artists thus associated themselves with those who push forward, taking risks and breaking new ground. 

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Paul Cézanne sought build on the innovations of Impresionism but achieve a more analytical style. His work was formed with a belief that Impressionism lacked form and structure. His paintings thus attempt to “make impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums (Kleiner ?).”

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-1904

Inspired partly by Japanese prints, Cézanne's paintings do not demonstrate truth in appearance, but rather establish structures behind formless and fleeting visual information. Cézanne formally demonstrates order in his presentation of the lines, planes, and colors that nature comprises. His paintings thus explore line, plane and color to create depth on a two-dimensional plane. Cézanne explores notions of color such as the phenomenon that cool colors recede while warm colors visually advance. He often used contrasting colors to provide intensity, much like the Impressionists.

The series of paintings he did of Mont Sainte-Victoire were from a mountain near his home. These paintings demonstrate the change to plein air painting based on many of the principles described by Monet. He exclaims,

Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, that is a section of nature.. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need of introducing into our light vibrations represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air (Kleiner ?).


Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, 1895

In Cézanne's The Basket of Apples, the apples lose much of their original character as they are simplified to cylinders and spheres. Cezanne was noted to have abandoned using real fruit because they tended to rot. The constant change of objects makes them seem to be depicted from differing vantage points. He often did many still-life paintings from various view points to understand forms in space. The paintings thus become an “architecture of color (Kleiner ?)." The methods never allow the viewer to disregard the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.


Each movement of the modern era challenged the artistic conventions of the previous with greater intensity. The challenge to previous became known as “avant-garde,” referring to the cutting edge or “front guard.” The French front guard were the soldiers sent ahead of the army to make occasional raids on the enemy. The term was used to describe artists who were ahead of their time and transgressed the limits of established art forms. They often took a critical stance toward their respective media and increasingly disengaged themselves from a public audience and seemed to direct their attentions at one another as philosophers would. The Post-Impressionists are considered the first true avant-garde artists but the term stretched to encompass other major movements throughout the 20th century.

Symbolist movement

Symbolists rejected the optical world as observed in favor of the fantasy world of forms they conjured in their free imagination. Each artist's technique was individual to his or her personal approach. In the themes of symbolist artwork, every element became a symbol of personal emotion toward the outside world. These artists disdained the mere fact of realism as trivial and asserted that fact must be transformed into the symbol of the inner experience of that fact. They were, in essence, seeking a deeper reality than the one the world provided. The artists became prophets of insight, urging other artists to stand against materialism and conventions of industrial and middle-class society. “Art for art’s sake” became their slogan. Their work also came at a time where Sigmund Freud began his psychoanalysis and a new age of psychiatry with his Interpretation of Dreams.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was a French artist who rejected realism and Impressionism. He quickly became a prophet for the symbolists but never associated himself with them. His work demonstrated an ornamental and reflective art style steeped in neoclassical tradition due to the large influence of Greek Mythology on these artists.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Sacred Grove, 1884

The Sacred Grove demonstrates a composition of statueseque, classical figures. The poses seem timeless, emphasizing their symbolic nature and rejection of capitalist materialism. His themes pushed toward civic and public art, stressing community.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)

Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1875

Gustave Moreau created subjects as remote as possible from the everyday world. Jupiter and Semele is one of his rare finished works. In the painting, Semele, one of Jupiter’s loves, begged the god to appear to her in all his majesty and the sight was so powerful that she died from it. The painting depicts the richness and splendour based on the oriental, Byzantine, and other motifs that heightened the drama.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Odilon Redon, The Cyclops, 1898

Odilon Redon had been aware of an intense inner world since childhood and wrote of the “imaginary things” that haunted him. His paintings take on an Impressionist palette and stippling brush stroke. His work projects his figments as if they were visible. Many of his paintings represent classical themes born from a dreaming world.

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

Henri Rousseau also projects a sense of personal fantasy. He was an untrained amateur painter who departed from the current artistic movements. His works demonstrates a talent for design and imagination of exotic images.

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

The Sleeping Gypsy demonstrates an uneasiness as one is vulnerable during sleep. In the painting, the viewer is left to question what is dream and what is reality?

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Edvard Munch felt deeply for the pains of human life. He believed that humans were powerless before the natural forces of death, love, and the emotions associated with them as these were conditions of “modern psychic life.” He believed that formal realist and impressionist techniques were inappropriate to capture such conditions and thus imbued his paintings with a high emotional charge.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

The Scream is stated by Munch to be a comment on the growing Industrial Revolution and the human response to the changing world. The painting departs significantly from a visual reality with the intent of stressing the emotional response. Munch stated regarding the painting,

I stopped and leaned against the balustrade, almost dead with fatigue. Above the blue-black fjord hung the clouds, red as blood and tongues of fire. My friends had left me, and alone, trembling with anguish, I became aware of the vast, infinite cry of nature.

The painting was originally titled Despair prior to the popular title now attached to the painting.


Sculpture was not a popular medium for artists at the time due to its solidity and permanence. Many of the sculptors came from the working class and still produced commissions due to the difficulty of paying for and selling fine art sculpture.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Children, 1865-1867

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux combined an interest in realism with a love of baroque sculpture and Michelangelo’s work. Ugolino and His Children is a sculpture based on a passage from Dante’s Inferno. The passage recounts Count Ugolino and his four sons shut up in a tower to starve to death. Ugolino states: "I bit both hands for grief. And they, thinking I did it for hunger, suddenly rose up and said, “Father”… and offered him their own flesh as food (Kleiner ?)." The sculpture recounts the earlier classical sculpture Laocoon. The sculpture also represents a realistic study from life. The theme and approach demonstrate the beginning of a sculptural turn away from the classical to the more Hellenistic: emotional with reference to themes as allegories for modern time.

Auguste Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907)

Auguste Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial, 1891

Auguste Saint-Gaudens used realism effectively in many of his portraits. Adams Memorial is a memorial to Mrs. Henry Adams. In the sculpture, Saint-Gaudens demonstrates a Classical mode of representation of a woman of majestic bearing sitting in mourning. The sculpture depicts her eternal vigilance through the immobility of her form, and represents in its gesture a departure from past sculptures of this theme.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)

Auguste Rodin is considered among the Realists. He was fascinated by the human body in motion and the effect of light on the three-dimensional surface. His works emphasize the medium and process, a modern artistic formal trait.

Auguste Rodin, Walking Man, 1905

Walking Man depicts a moment when weight is transferred across the pelvis from back to front. The sculpture is a study for his sculpture of Saint John the Baptist Preaching. Rodin often did many studies both drawn and sculpted to gain the factual essence of forms that he was commissioned to create and few actual finished works.

Auguste Rodin, Burghers of Calais, 1884-1889

The Burghers of Calais is a monument commissioned to commemorate a heroic episode in the Hundred Years’ War. The theme depicts a moment where during the English Siege of Calais, six of the leading citizens offered their lives for the rest of the population. The sculpture vividly depicts the despair of the people. Rodin's choreographic placement of the figures who seem to wander aimlessly. The sculpture is roughly textured gaining an idea of the transitory nature of object and placed at ground level to connect with viewers. The Government found the realistic depiction and ground level display to be offensive and raised it on a pedestal at a different location, disassociating it from its original meaning.

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Auguste Rodin, The gates of Hell, 1880-1917

Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts movement was headed by William Morris and the writings of John Ruskin. The movement was focused on a return to craftsmanship and aesthetics as a way to bring back emotion and quality to industrial objects.

William Morris (1834-1896)

William Morris, Pink and Rose wallpaper design, 1890

William Morris advocated art “made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user.” He looked to manuscript illuminations and handcraft while he condemned capitalism and industrialization. He and others from the Arts and Crafts Movement believed that aesthetics were lost in mass production and thus pushed to imbue functional objects with aesthetic value. Morris produced many textiles, patterns, and printed manuscripts where high-quality artisanship and honest labor were crucial.

Art Nouveau

Literally “New Art,” Art Nouveau was a design movement that stems from the Arts and Craft’s movement. The movement took on many different names, such as "Jugendstil" in Germany, but the main name came from a shop in Paris. The style was based on natural linear forms and an influence from celtic patterning.

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)

Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1894

Aubrey Beardsley became well known for his Art Nouveau print designs. In The Peacock Skirt, the linear forms create an organic patterning that is both flat and decorative taking much influence from naturalism and Japanese prints. Beardsley banished realism and confines himself to simply black and white producing an interesting natural linear rhythm.

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926)

Antonio Gaudi, Casa Mila, Barcelona, 1907

Antonio Gaudi demonstrates the stretch of Art Nouveau into architecture as he demonstrates a sense of personal expression in the forms of his structures. Gaudi gains his inspiration from Moorish-Spanish architecture. In Casa Mila he conceived the building as a whole and molded it as a sculptor might create a sculpture. The building is an apartment house, but looks like a free-form, undulating mass suggesting naturally worn rock. Gaudi's works develop structures as if they were symbolic of living things.

Gustav Klimt (1863-1918)

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908

Works of flamboyance with unsettling undertones. The Kiss depicts a couple locked in an embrace, barely visible in the patterning. The use of patterning ties Klimt's work to Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement, while also capturing some of the decadence of the time in theme and formal qualities of his work.

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923)

Steel became available after 1860 and allowed architects to enclose larger spaces. Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel created architecture that dealt with the building’s purpose instead of disguising the function. He had a career designing exhibition halls, bridges and interior armature for the Statue of Liberty.

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, Eiffel Tower¸ 1889

The Eiffel Tower was designed for a great exhibition in Paris as a symbol of modern Paris. The structure stands 984 feet tall and was the world’s tallest structure for some time. The structure further demonstrates an interesting interpenetration of interior and exterior space as it is mainly an armature with no walls. The materials create a new style of architecture which allows for a vertical movement and increased safety.

20th Century

At the turn of the twentieth century there were many intellectual developments. There was a reassessment of values and ideas developed in the scientific revolution of the 19th century. Most theories were based on scientific fact. Many artists developed artistic concepts which analyzed emotion. Science also added to different views of perception. The many advances in technology started to form the world we know today (airplanes, cars, radio, electric street lighting, home appliances).

There were also several intellectuals, philosophers, and psychologists that developed new opinions on the world. Friedrich Nietzche rejected the rational as he believed that Western society was decadent and incapable of any real creativity precisely because of its excessive reliance on reason at the expense of emotion and passion. He further blamed Christianity and religion for such barriers. Sigmund Freud wrote his text, Interpretation of Dreams (1900) he demonstrates his fundamental principles of psychoanalysis based on the unconscious and inner drives which control human behavior. Carl Jung described how therapists could understand the behavior and personality of an individual by identifying patterns in his or her dreams.The industrial revolution led way to industrial capitalism while Karl Marx and Marxism championed the working class.

These movements led to an era of uncertainty and anxiety leading quickly toward The Great War (World War I) and the Russian Revolution. World War I demonstrated a Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) vs. the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Great Britain). In July, 1914, the war began and the United states entered in 1917. The war demonstrated how the industrial revolution and its achievements can prove to be evil as war machines became ever more efficient at killing. In 1917, the Russians overthrew the provinsional government under Tsar Nicolas II with the Bolsheviks under Lenin which started the first communist regime and the Russian Revolution. The empire was officially renamed the soviet union in 1923.

Following World War I, the Triple Entente found themselves in a time of great success that quickly ended with the crash of the stock market in 1929 leading to the Great Depression. Economic depression lasts for about a decade where production plummeted in the United States alone by 50 percent. The world quickly moved toward another great war as World War II between the Axis powers of Japan, Italy and Germany and the rest of the world battled in the late 1930's until the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Naggasaki in Japan by the United States.

The beginning of the twentieth century led to a further evolution of Modernism. The challenges posed by many Avant-Garde artists before the 20th century pushed into the new century. Artists continue to question what art is and add their own interpretations. The artwork begins with an emergence of expressionism based on the expressionist qualities of post-impressionism, but many artistic movements, driven by differing artistic manifestos emerge throughout the first half of the twentieth centry.


1905: 3rd Salon d’Automne in Paris a group of young painters under the leadership of Henri Matisse with extremely bright colors and were described as fauves (wild beasts). The artists demonstrated a directness of impressionism with intense color juxtapositions based on post-impressionists such as Gaugin and Van Gogh. Their belief was to liberate color from its descriptive function for both expressive and structural means. The group only lasted a few years before most of it’s artists moved in other directions.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Matisse Woman with the Hat 1905
Henri Matisse Woman with the Hat, 1905

Henri Matisse realized color could play a primary role in conveying meaning and focused his efforts on this notion. In Woman with a Hat he paints his wife with arbitrary colors rejecting anything that imitated nature. These colors increased in luminosity in comparison to his contemporaries. Color thus became the main theme and almost the only form in the composition and the main conveyor of meaning.

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Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908-1909

Red Room displays his studio with a feeling of flatness, and decorative color. Feeling of warmth and objects are simplified and flattened. Pattern emphasizes a flattened space.

German Expressionism

German expressionism is influenced by the boldness of the Fauves. These Expressionists influenced not only painting, but sculpture and film as well. They produced powerful canvases in the face of WWI. They were a group of artists led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner showed in Dresden in 1905. They believed they were bridging the old with the new (Die Brucke). These artists modeled themselves after Medieval craft guilds by living together and practising all the arts equally, and protested the materialistic decadence and the affects of industrialization.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Dresden, 1908

Street, Dresden depicts the thriving German city before WWI. The expressionist style demonstrates a crowded street is off-putting much like Munch’s Scream as people seem ghoulish. The clashing colors emphasizes expressive impact.

Emil Nolde (1867-1956)

Emil Nolde, Saint Mary of Egypt among Sinners, 1912

Emil Nolde centered his imagery on religious themes. His paintings focus on expressiveness of mark and color to provide emotive emphasis often relying on harsh colors and aggressively brushed paint.

Der Blaue Reiter

Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) was another German Expressionist group. They were formed in Munich in 1911 by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The group focused on feelings in visual form and visceral responses from the viewer.

Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Vassily Kandinsky was a Russian who moved to Munich and painted among the German artists. He was one of the first artists to explore complete abstraction.

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Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913

Composition VII demonstrates his elimination of most representational elements and incorporation of theosophy (mystic, philosophical and religious belief). Explorations of atomic structure convinced Kandinsky that material objects had no real substance or true tangibility. He went on to write down his thoughts in the text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912: treatise expressing the spirit and innermost feelings by orchestrating color, form, line and space. The book also outlines blueprints for a more enlightend and liberated society emphasizing spirituality and a visual harmony paralleling musical rhythms.

Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Franz Marc was pessimistic about the state of humanity. He turned to the animal world as subjects as they were “more beautiful, more pure.” He also believed that animals contained a greater emotional intensity. For him, colors had specific symbolic connections: “Blue is the male principle, severe and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, happy and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy.”

Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals, 1913

Fate of the Animals demonstrates tension as some apocalyptic event is destroying the animals. The painting alludes to World War I that had begun shortly after. Color dominates the work in an extremely emotive way. Marc himself died in battle in WWI (1916).


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Pablo Picasso mastered realist technique before entering the Barcelona Academy of Fine Art. He soon moved to Paris and always remained traditional in his expression by creating studies. He believed in constantly challenging himself and those around him and consistently changed from one style to another. He was also fascinated by Ancient Iberian sculpture, African art and the paintings of Cezanne.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906-1907

Gertude Stein was a friend and patron. Picasso had her sit more than 80 times for the painting and finally finished it without her present. He incorporated aspects from sculptures that influenced him. Stein found the work insightful and nuanced for its incorporation of these unique formal elements.

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Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1907

Picasso stated, “I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them.” His painting techniques opened the door to a new method of representing form in space. Les Demoiselles d' Avignondescribes a suggestion of forms as fractured shape that was similar to Cezanne’s metod of depicting space, but with even more ephasis on the 2d surface. The painting further expands a tension between representation and abstraction. In the faces there is obvious relation to the African sculpture that influenced him. Figures are depicted inconsistently with reference to different cultural forms: left refers to Iberian art, right to African art. Picasso further broke the bodies into planes suggesting a combination of views. The dramatic departure form the careful presentation of a visual reality. He kept the painting in his studio for several years before showing it. And influenced friends and artists who came to his studio leading to the formulation Cubism with Georges Braque in 1908.


Cubism marks a radical turning point in the history of art. The formal style seeks a dismissal of the pictorial illusionism that dominated art. It rejected naturalistic depictions and preferred shapes and forms abstracted from the perceived world. The style is a continuation of the analysis of form in Cezanne’s art.

Cubism broke apart form and reassembled it to form an aesthetic object.

Authentic cubism is the art of depicting new wholes with formal elements borrowed not form the reality of vision, but from that of conception. This tendency leads to a poetic kind of painting which stands outside the world of observation; for, even in a simple cubism, the geometrical surfaces of an object must be opened out in order to give a complete representation of it… Everyone must agree that a chair, from whichever side it is viewed, never ceases to have four legs, a seat and a back, and that, if it is robbed of one of these elements, it is robbed of an important part. (Guillaume Apollinaire)

Where Analytic Cubism dissected forms of the subjects and displayed across the painted surface in an analytical way.


Georges Braque (1882-1963)

Georges Braque, The Portuguese, 1911

Braque painted the subject of The Portuguese from memory. The painting depicts a musician in a bar in subdued hues to focus on form rather than color. The painting thus focuses on the concepts of light and shadow. Flat shapes of letters contrast the painted surface to emphasize the 2d vs 3d. The painting anchors itself in the world of representation, but radically departs.

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941)

Robert Delaunay, another of The School of Paris produced a kind of an analytical cubist style where he attempts to incorporate color. His style was referred to as “Orphism” relating to the Greek god with musical powers.

Robert Delaunay, Champs de Mars, or The Red Tower, 1911

Champs de Mars was one of his many paintings depicting the Eiffel tower. The painting breaks the monument up to describe it in the round or the experience of it. There is also a sense of push-and-pull in relation to the surface plane of the two dimensional space. Delaunay's work strongly influences the Futurists in Germany and Italy.

Synthetic Cubism

Synthetic Cubism didn’t rely on a decipherable relation to the visible world. The paintings and drawings were from objects and shapes cut from paper or other materials to represent parts of a subject.

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Pablo Picasso, Still life with Chair-Caning, 1912

Still life with Chair-Caning utilizes real materials collaged into the painting. The painting challenges the understanding of reality as the chair-caning is printed material breaking the idea of what should be real whereas the rope is real material. The letters again break from the sense of 2d vs 3d. The painting is thus an experience of a still-life rather than an actual still-life.

George Braque Bottle, Newspaper, Pipe and Glass, 1913

Braque's similar painting, Bottle, Newspaper, Pipe and Glass is produced with stuck paper and false wood to give a layering of flat planes. The painting enters into a visual game played by the artist on the viewer. Picasso stated about this style, “not only did we try to displace rality; reality was no longer in the object… In the papier colle… we didn’t any longer want to fool the eye; we wanted to fool the mind.” This style demonstrates Cubism’s attack on artistic convention was expanded by critics to encompass an attack on society’s complacency and status quo. In it there is a prevailing sense of anarchy.

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Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912

Picasso's Guitar represents an intersection of 2d and 3d. It is an exploration through a quick media of cardboard in a cutaway view.

o Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)

Jacques Lipchitz, Bather, 1917

Bather represents the depiction of a bather in Cubist form in more permanent media. Lipchitz worked in clay before casting in bronze. The work is a direct parallel to the analytical cubist works.

Aleksandr Archipenko (1887-1964)

Aleksandr Archipenko, Woman Combing Her Hair, 1915

Similar to Lipchitz, Archipenko's Woman Combing her Hair depicts a genre image but in place of a head we have a void. Archipenko thus creates an interplay of interior and exterior. The sculpture is fairly representational but breaking from conventions.

Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942)

Julio Gonzalez, Woman Combing Her Hair, 1930-1933

Julio Gonzalez was a friend of Picasso. His work explores the possibilities of new materials and methods such as direct metal sculpture. His sculpture makes use of ready-made industrial metals. Woman Combing Her Hair further emphasizes dynamic sculptures emphasizing lines, curves and planes forming a virtually complete abstraction of the subject.


Purism formalizes ideas formed by a Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier). The style opposed Synthetic Cubism on the grounds that it was becoming merely a decorative art and out of touch with the machine age. The movement thus maintained that machinery’s clean functional lines and pure forms should direct the artist’s experiments in design.

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Fernand Léger was a French painter who worked with the cubists. He moved in his process to be more machine, as he liked the finished product to be based on such parts as pistons and cylinders.

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Fernand Léger, Ballet Mechanique, 1924

In an attempt to bring the machine qualities to life, Léger not only painted but also experimented with film as an artistic medium. Ballet Mechanique focused on machines in a sort of dance. It also incorporated effects of modern posters and robotic movement with a suggestion of synthetic cubism.

Fermand Léger, Mechanical Elements, 1920

In painting, Leger showed a similar focus on the industrial and machanical both in form and theme.


The futurist movement was mostly an Italian movement. It began in 1909 with The Futurist Manifesto written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The movement began first as a literary movement but soon moved into all creative types. The futurists wrote several manifestos in which they aggressively advocated revolution in society and art. They glorified war as a means of doing away with a stagnant past stating, “We wish to glorify war- sole hygiene to the world.” In futurist work, similar to Purism, they focused on the speed and dynamism of modern technology while still stemming from the cubist analysis of form.

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Giacoma Balla, Dynamism of a dog on a leash, 1912; Gino Severini, Dynamic Heiroglyph of the Bal Tabarin, 1912; and Umberto Boccioni, Unique forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

The three works by Severini, Balla, and Boccioni shown above describe the interest in motion. Movement is depicted as a fixed visual field with objects depicted simultaneously in several views over time on the fixed fields of both two and three dimensions.

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)

Umberto Boccioni, Unique forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Boccioni applied the idea of motion to sculpture. He states, “What we want is not fixed movement in space but the sensation of motion itself. Owing to the persistence of images on the retina, object in motion are multiplied and distorted, following one another like waves in space. Thus, a galloping horse has not four legs, it has twenty (Fineberg ?).” The sculpture, Unique forms of Continuity in Space depicts spatial effects of motion that blur with movement. It is inherently mechanical and demonstrates the modern age.

Europe after WWI

Neue Sachlichkeit

German expressionists focused on the war and its effects. They did so in a movement they described as the “New Objectivity.”

George Grosz (1893-1958)

George Grosz was noted as saying, “I am trying to give an absolutely realistic picture of the world.” He is often associated with the Dada movement but with a more harsh and bitter tone.

George Grosz, Fit for Active Service, 1916-1917

Grosz many times depicts officers as incompetent and heartless based on personal experience. He was personally declared fit for service despite physical issues. His image, Fit for Active Service is meant to be direct and simple in a satirical nature.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950)

Max Beckmann, Night, 1918-19

Max Beckman was like Grosz in that he depicts the irrational in war. Night depicts a cramped room where three intruders have entered and are raping and killing the family. It is a comment on the condition of the time much like Goya’s images of war. The ambiguity of the image and breaking of space and form emphasizes the drama taking from cubist and futurist ideas. The image itself is powerful and honest.

Otto Dix (1891-1959)

Dix embraced direct war imagery. He served as a machine gunner and aerial observer during WWI. He tried to find some redeeming value in the “depths of life” and the ideas of tearing down and rebuilding by Nietzsche.


Otto Dix, Der Krieg (The War), 1929-32

Der Krieg (The War) depicts scenes of devastation. He shows himself in the right panel as the determined soldier dragging a comrade to safety. The triptych recalls Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. The piece is thus an altar to the results of war and meant for much the same purpose.

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-20

Kathe Kollwitz was an emotional and graphic art stimulated by Gaugin and Munch’s work in woodcuts and prints. She mostly worked in the print media. Her prints recall earlier religious motifs in stark expressive contrast. She demonstrates a personal connection to her themes as she demonstrates the grief that would come of such a situation.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919)

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Seated Youth, 1917

Wilhelm Lehmbruck is an expressive figurative sculptor that produces similar themes to Kollwitz. Seated Youth is a figurative sculpture with strong emotive sensibility. The elongation of proportions emphasize a sense of anguish. The work was originally titled, The Friend in reference to the many friends that died in the war. Lehmbruck himself committed suicide in 1919 and the sculpture was placed as a memorial in the soldiers’ cemetery in Duisburg.


Following WWI many artists reacted to what they saw as an insane spectacle of collective homicide by the world’s societies. Dada is a made up word that deals with a state of mind. The movement believed that reason and logic were responsible for war so the only route to salvation was through anarchy, irrational and intuitive. It emphasized the absurd and random in everything including the name of the movement that was said to be a word chosen at random in the dictionary. The entire movement was an endless attempt to undermine the notions and assumptions about art- to destroy what art is. They had a visible contempt for everything traditional and established: iconoclasm.

Dada knows everything. Dada spits on everything. Dada says “knowthing,” Dada has no fixed ideas. Dada does not catch flies. Dada is bitterness laughing at everything that has been accomplished, sanctified… Dada is never right… No more painters, no more writers, no more religions, no more royalists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more police, no more airplanes, no more urinary passages… Like everything in life, dada is useless, everything happens in a completely idiotic way… We are incapable of treating seriously any subject whatsoever, let alone this subject: ourselves. Dada was a phenomenon bursting forth in the midst of the post war economic and moral crisis, a savior, a monster, which would lay waste to everything in its path. It was a systematic work of destruction and demoralization… In the end it became nothing but the act of sacrilege.

Though violent, there are undercurrents of whimsy and satire while they also explored the unconscious and products of chance.


Hugo Ball

Hugo ball was at the heart of the Dada spirit with his manifestos, poetry, and cabaret performance art emphasizing randomness

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Dada Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

Jean (Hans) Arp (1887-1966)

Jean Arp, Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-1917

Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance is a composition constructed by forms dropped haphazardly on a sheet of paper on the floor and glued in the resulting arrangement. The composition however seems to have been adjusted somewhat to a grid, but the placement of the forms became the chance. For Arp and other Dada artists, chance allowed for a primeval power lost in classicism and a turn toward anarchy.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Marcel Duchamp became influential in all aspects of Dada art. In 1913 he exhibited his first “ready-made” sculptures. These sculptures were sometimes combined with other ready objects without any consideration of either good or bad taste.

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Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Probably the most influential due to the long lasting conversation surrounding the piece, Fountain is a urinal with the signature, “R.Mutt, 1917.” Duchamp did not select the object for any aesthetic qualities, rather the object itself. The piece was first rejected from the show that it was entered, but Duchamp quickly wrote a rebuttal to the dismissal of the piece stating, "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object." The object is thus placed in a new light, a new context, changing the meaning and highlighing the importance of context in the reading of an artistic piece.

Hannah Hoch (1889-1978)

Another artist of the Dada, Hannah Hoch, expressed herself though photomontage. Her images are often satirical and chaotic compositions meant as commentaries on the Weimar Republic of Germany.

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Hannah Hoch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919-1920

Cut with the kitchen knife demonstrates the importance of appropriation and use of mass media. She utilizes images of Marx, Lenin and other revolutionary figures to place them into “The great Dada world.”

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Kurt Schwitters, Merz 19, 1920

Kurt Schwitters was inspired by Cubist collage. He found visual poetry in the cast-off junk of modern society. Merz 32a is from a series of collages and a group which formed a publication under the same title. The term refers to a shortened version of the word for commerce. The aesthetic demonstrates the fact that junk and appropriation is a powerful weapon for artists.


Many of the new styles and conventions of Europe make their way into American culture. The art of America was quite varied until the dialogue between the modernists in Europe made its way to the states.

Armory Show, 1913


During a time where the popular style from America was the Ashcan School, the Armory Show in 1913 was a large scale endeavor organized by Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies. The show included more than 1,600 artworks by contemporary American and European artists. It was the first show to truly expose American artists and the public the latest artistic developments. It quickly became a lightning rod for commentary and controversy and was even asked to be closed as a menace to public morality.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

Duchamp's Nude Decending a Staircase depicts a figure in motion down a staircase. It is a painting much in line with futurist and cubist work rather than Dada ideals. The piece became an iconic image from this exhibition

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

Alfred Stieglitz elevated photography through his gallery, “291.” His images focused on scenes of everyday life and shot everything as he carried his camera wherever he went. His images are described as “straight, unmanipulated” photographs. He went on a lifelong campaign to raise the importance of photography.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907

The Steerage provides a photographic emphasis on forms in space. It is further a message about humanity as the people depicted were immigrants turned away from the United States. The composition describes a mixture of pattern and human activity.

Edward Weston (1886-1958)

Edward Weston, Nude, 1925

Another American photographer, Edward Weston, focused on straight photography but moved toward abstraction with his cropping. His process thus becomes a focus on reductive design and formal elements through photography.

Man Ray (1890-1976)

Man Ray, Gift, 1921

Man Ray worked closely with Duchamp and retained a Dada spirit. He maintained a dedication to the psychological realm of human perception. A work such as Gift demonstrates his move to dislocate the ordinary thing from its preconceived notions.

Stuart Davis (1894-1964)

Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1921

Stuart Davis mixed the ideas of synthetic cubism with an American Jazz feel. Lucky Strike is what he called a "Tobacco still life." He was a heavy smoker and was fascinated by products and their packaging. The painting illusionistcally represented the forms rather than pasting them in place creating a rhythmic feeling inspired by many of the European artists.

Aaron Douglas (1898-1979)

Aaron Douglas, Noah's Ark, 1927

Aaron Douglas was an African American artist working in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. His work takes on many aspects of modernist symbol and flatness while adding African imagery. Noah's Ark is one of seven paintings based on a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson called, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.


Percisionism was an American artistic movement much like many other artistic movements in Europe at the time focusing on the art of the modern machine age as a style that was American. There was a fascination with the machine’s precision and importance. The formal qualities of this style relate to machine imagery and an emphasis on sharp planes as in cubism and futurism.

Charles Demuth (1883-1935)

Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927

Demuth depicted the effects of expanding technology with a cubist fragmentation of space. His titles also accommodate differing readings.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

During the 20’s Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New York and married Alfred Stieglitz. She always believed, "You have to live in today." She had a fascination with the fast pace of city life and many of her works move toward formal abstraction.

Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, Night, 1929

New York, Night depicts soaring skyscrapers and moving lights. Reminiscent of the Percisionist movement and the aesthetics of Whistler, the painting demonstrates her strong desire toward design on a two dimensional plane.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Place II, 1944

Later moving away from the city in search of more contemplative space, she moved to the Southwestern United States and began focusing on a more formal abstraction based on floral motifs and other still-life objects. She reduced subjects in their purist forms focusing on color, shape, texture and rhythm for a gracefully poetic vision.

Surrealism and Fantasy Art

The momentum of Dada and the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung lead to a group of artists that explore the inner world of the human mind. André Breton describes the Surrealist movement as:

Pure Psychic automatism, by which one intends to express verbally in writing, or by any other method, the real functioning of the mind. Dictation by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond any esthetic or moral preoccupation… Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought… I believe in the future resolution of the states of dream and reality, in appearance so contradictory, in a sort of absolute reality or surreality (Kleiner 875).

The movement developed along two lines, Biomorphic and naturalistic surrealism. Biomorphic surrealism refers to automatism, the dictation of thought without control of the mind. From this abstract compositions developed with imagery that sometimes suggests organisms. Naturalistic Surrealists depicted recognizable scenes that have been changed into a dream-like image.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)

Giorgio de Chirico, Ariadne, 1913

Giorgio de Chirico is an artist who is a precursor of surrealism. His cityscapes and shop windows that form ambiguous spaces in a movement titled Pittura Metafisica or metaphysical painting. His compositions often seem sinister and dreamlike.

Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Originally a Dada activist, Max Ernst's work was in direct opposition to the artistic intent of Nazi Germany. He always sought a sense of the magical and psychic in his art often incorporating found objects. He started doing collages with an element of chance and then moved to paintings which held many of the same associations.


Max Ernst, Two Children are Threatened by a Nightmare, 1924

Two Children are Threatened by a Nightmare resembles a private dream that deals with the idea that the painting is a window into a real world. The image includes alandscape and distant city with odd symbolism tied to each of the images in the landscape. The title comes form a poem that he had written right before this painting. The viewer is forced to decifer the connections as if they were a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)

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Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Dali used what he called a “paranoiac-critical method,” which aimed to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialistic fury of precision. The Persistence of Memory is an allegory of empty space where time has ended. Time has stopped. The symbols are of irrationality. Dali further expresses his skill in his precise control and detail that is extremely glossy as if rendered from nature.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

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Rene Magritte, The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images, 1928-1929

Rene Magritte focuses on the dreamlike dissociation of image and meaning. His paintings often subverted expectations based on logic and common sense much in kin to the Dada movement. The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images is a Trompe l’oeil painting of a pipe. Stating, “this is not a pipe” uses the viewer’s rationality against them.

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985)

Meret Oppenheim Object, 1936
Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936

Meret Oppenheim further messes with the logic and reason of the viewer. Object refers to the idea of transformation. The piece was selected as a symbol to the surrealist vision.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939

Frida Kahlo was married to Diego Rivera (Mexican Muralist). She is often discussed as surreal as she explores herself in her many autobiographical images filled with symbolic meaning. Her life was filled with health problems and stormy relationships. She also was deeply committed to her Mexican heritage as seen in her clothing.

Joan Miró (1893-1983)

Joan Miró, Painting, 1933

Joan Miró developed his work using free creative process. He resisted formal association with any movement or group. His paintings depict elements of fantasy and hallucination. Often he began with a scattered collage with assembled fragments from a catalog for machinery. These forms were then reshaped into black silhouettes in solid and outline with accents of white and red. His method consisted of switching back and forth between unconscious and conscious in image letting the painting assert itself and take on its own life. The paintings thus become spontaneous and intuitive with deep psychological connections.

Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Like Miró, Paul Klee shunned formal association with groups. He had also a deep interest in the subconscious. He produced his images using primitive shapes and symbols stating, “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible” (The Art Story, "Paul Klee"). He often studied nature avidly analyzing growth and change and started an image by allowing the pencil or brush to lead him then respond to complete the idea.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922

Twittering Machine is simple with poetic nature. The theme and image remains ambiguous which allows the viewer to interpret the images he creates.

Suprematism and Constructivism

Following WWI, several movements look to utopian ideals of what society should be through geometric abstraction. These Russian movements deal with a communist ideal.

Kazmir Malevich (1878-1935)

Kazmir Malevich demonstrates an abstract style with the belief that the supreme reality in the world is pure feeling. His work is thus completely nonobjective in that the shapes are not related to forms in nature. His basis of all shapes is the square.

Kazmir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915

In Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, shapes float in a white space in a particular relationship to one another. He believed in the universality of his images as they are not based on objects but on feeling that the shapes denote. The univerality thus promotes the concept of “practical art” vs the soviet realistic art that was perceived as understandable to a wide public.

See also: Disscussion on Context, Malevich Suprematist Composition: White on White.

Naum Gabo (1890-1977)

Naum Gabo is associated with a group of Russian sculptors known as Constructivists. He built up sculptures piece by piece in space instead of carving or modeling them in the traditional way. This process freed the artist to build on their volumes with a material thought rather than a preconceived notion of the end result. The focus of his work is often the relationship of mass and space.

Naum Gabo, Column, 1923

Column demonstrates a senses of material and experimentation. It demonstrates his desire for creating interesting relationship of forms in space.

Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953)

Tatlin was another constructivist producing immediately following the Russian Revolution in 1917. He referred to his style as Productivism, which was influenced by cubism and the dynamism of futurism. He experimented with materials in a nonobjective manner as he too believed this to be the ideal to the new society. The goal for him was a living art working with society. Art should thus be functional.

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1919-1920

In Monument to the Third International, Tatlin envisioned a huge glass building twice as tall as the empire state building to honor the Russian Revolution. The large-scale model was referred to as “Tatlin’s Tower.” The desire for the final project was a center for society spiralling around a central axis and project words on the clouds on an overcast day. The project was never realized but exists in idea and models.

De Stijl

De Stijl was a Dutch movement with similar utopian ideals as Constructivism and Suprematism. The style was based on the sturdiness of the vertical and horizontal. The concept was to produce balance and a new, plastic unity.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Piet Mondrian believed that the style was an underlying eternal structure of existence. He reduced his work to the simplest of forms. He was a noted Theosophist and preached his ideals whenever possible. His work actually began in an objective, cubist way and soon moved beyond it because he felt that it did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries.

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Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, With Red and Blue, 1929

In his compositions, he attempts to find the perfection and balance that lies within form. There is a dynamic tension created with the simplest of visual elements. He often produced hundreds of studies to come to any one final image.

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888-1964)

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, Schroder House, 1924

Rietveld's Schroder House demonstrates this De Stijl ideal in architecture. The form of the house deals with an essential relationship to nature in its open design and emphasis on the basics of architecture, the horizontal and vertical. There is a strong influence of Mondrian’s work seen in the design.

The Bauhaus

Walter Gropius (1883-1969)

Influenced by De Stijl, Constructivism and Suprematism, the Bauhaus was a school developed to the idea of total architecture. The curriculum was based on principles of composition (color and design), materials, a craft aesthetic (to bring back functionality) and the unity of art, architecture and design. They wanted graduates who could design environments that satisfied 20th century needs of industry and humanity with utopian principles. The faculty included such artists as Mondrian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Itten, Breuer, Kandinsky, etc.

Josef Albers (1888-1976)

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1953

Josef Albers made major contributions to color theory and basic design. His paintings are an investigation of formal aspects of color and design throughout his career which he finished in the united states at Black Mountain College. Homage to the Square is a series of hundreds of paintings with the same composition and different color variations. In these paintings there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. They relate to the concepts of the relativity of color perception. He also wrote books on these concepts that are still in use in color theory courses at all design institutions.

The Bauhaus moves from its original location to Dessau Germany where they design a factory-like structure to further their ideals. They continue the school by means of patents and manufacture of designs produced by instructors and students. The school also produces clearer goals:

  • A decidedly positive attitude to the living environment of vehicles and machines
  • The organic shaping of things in accordance with their own current laws, avoiding all romantic embellishment and whimsy
  • Restriction of basic forms and colors to what is typical and universally intelligible
  • Simplicity in complexity, economy in the use of space, materials, time and money


Marcel Breuer (1902-1981)

Marcel Breuer, Tubular Steel Chair, 1925

Breuer's chair is inspired by bicycle handle bars. It takes on a simple, geometric look but takes into consideration material, economy and form vs. function.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)

Mies Van Der Rohe eventually took directorship of the school and moved the Bauhaus to Berlin. He was an architect who believed that less is more (called his architecture “skin and bones”). In 1933, the Nazis take over Germany and occupy the Bauhaus and close it for good. Many of the artists and teachers move to the United States and other countries to continue their utopian ideals and artistic aesthetic which was shunned by the Nazi party.

International Style

As artists were forced around Europe and beyond, the styles and movements began to blend into a more pure style that spanned borders.

Le Corbusier (1887-1965)

Le Corbousier was the strongest advocate for the new, international style. He focused his architectural work on the concepts of functional living space. For him architecture was a “machine for living.”

Le Corbousier, Perspective drawing for Domino House project, 1914

Le Corbusier's perspective for his Domino House project took advantage of new materials such as reinforced concrete slabs and steel to form both ceilings and floors. This design gave freedom to the architect to subdivide interior as desired by the occupant. It eliminates the need for a bearing wall allowing for a modular space between the pillars. This design is much like how many buildings are created and stems from designs by Walter Gropius and Peter Behrens.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1929

Villa Savoye is a country house that dominates the landscape with a modernist aesthetic. There is no traditional façade or entrance. There is an interesting penetration of interior and exterior space and a sense of balance between symmetry and asymmetry, simplicity mixed with complexity.

Art Deco

New, modern architecture rejected ornament, Art Deco embraced it especially in public architecture. The style sought to upgrade industrial design with a sense of fine art. There was a universal application to buildings, interiors, furniture, etc focusing on streamlined, symmetrical designs. The title of this style derived its name from the Exposition of Decorative and Modern Industrial Arts in 1925. The style is also often associated with Jazz Age flair and elegance of ocean liners.

William van Alen, Chrysler Building, 1928-30

William Van Alen's Chryslter Building design demonstrates some aspects of the machined art deco style. The steel spire atop the Chrysler building is in line with Art Deco aesthetic. Millionaires and corporations began competing for the tallest buildings in the world. This building stands as a temple of commerce dedicated to the success of business before the great depression.

“Natural Architecture” and total design

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Frank Lloyd Wright worked in a firm headed by Louis Sullivan. He believed in an “architecture of democracy” and took influences form educational blocks, organic unity of Japanese architecture, and a Jeffersonian belief in individualism. To him, architecture should be organic and natural and individuals have the right to move within a space in a non symmetrical way. His architectural works thus demonstrate a continuity of form from architecture to interior design to the environment it resides within.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, 1907-1909

Robie house demonstrates a wandering plan with intricately joined spaces and a connection with interior and exterior recalling Japanese architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Kaufmann House (Fallingwater), 1936-1939

Kaufmann House further demonstrates Wright's commitment to the relationship of building to site. There is an added emphasis on horizontal vs. Vertical in a natural way. He pays close attention to the material qualities of the forms. His ideas of architecture as well as the design of the interiors, even the furniture, becomes a strong influence on generations of architects as he liberated the design of architecture based on purpose.

Organic Sculpture

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)

A Romanian, Copnstantine Brancusi's work emphasizes the organic and natural. His forms are often reduced to soft curving surfaces and ovoid forms. He emphasized materials and the base typically become a part of the form.

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Constantin Brancusi, Bird In Space, 1928

Bird in Space simplified natural forms to their underlying essence. It is based on a machine age with smooth surfaces, often reproduced in Brass. He searched for underlying emotional chords and envisioned many of his works enlarged to enormous scales.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)

Barbara Hepworth, Oval Sculpture, 1943

Barbara Hepworth combined pristine shape with a sense of organic vitality. She states,

The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical, or pierced form (sometimes incorporating color) which translates for me the association and meaning of gesture in the landscape… In all these shapes the translation of what one feels about man and nature must be conveyed by the sculptor in terms of mass, inner tension, and rhythm, scale in relation to our human size, and the quality of surface which speaks through our hands and eyes (Kleiner 727).

In sculpture, the use of the hole or void became an important part of her work and sculpture. The sculptures also are reduced to basic and universal forms with interesting since of space and negative space.


Henry Moore (1898-1986)

Henry Moore was an English sculptor who also emphasized the material. His work is similar to Hepworth in the use of the void while capturing the essence of his figures much like Brancusi.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1939

Reclining Figure demonstrates a feeling of landscape and surrealist biormorphic forms. The hole connects one side to the other making it immediately three dimensional.

Political Statements

Pablo Picasso, Guernica
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso states, "Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument for offensive and defensive war against the enemy" (Kleiner 716). This work was created during the Civil war in Spain during the 1930s. It was commission by the government in exile for the pavilion for the exposition in Paris. Picasso actually did not do any work on this painting until he had heard about Guernica on April 26, 1937. The event depicts Nazi bombers acting on behalf of the rebel general, Fancisco Franco destroying the city during the busiest hour of the market day, killing or wounding many of the 7,000 inhabitants.

There is no particular reference to the event in the work, rather a general outcry by the suffering. It maintains Cubist qualities with expressive effect. The focus is on light vs. shadow and reduced color pallet providing focus on the narrative and expressive gestures of the figures. Picasso did not allow the painting to be displayed in Spain while the government was under the control of Franco, thus it hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) until the dictator’s death then moved to Madrid and hangs as a testament to the time. You can now often see the painting behind speakers at the United Nations

Dorthea LangeMigrant Mother, Nipomo Valley, 1935

In 1929 the United States Stock Markets crashed beginning the Great Depression. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissions artists under the Federal Art Project to keep them in their creative professions. Dorthea Lange was among those hired by the Resettlement Administration to photograph the situation of the rural poor. The images she took in Nipomo depict Migrant workers were starving because the crops had frozen in the fields. Migrant Mother took on an iconic status. As Lange states,

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I remember she asked me no question. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction… There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her and she seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me ("Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother: Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection, An Overview," Library of Congress).

Within days of publication, food was rushed to the area by people touched by the image.


Jacob Lawrence Migration of the American Negro 1937 (Phillips Collection and MoMA)

Jacob Lawrence was the first African American artists to receive a one-person show in a prominent New York art gallery. While supported by the WPA, Lawrence was commissioned to produce a series describing the exodus of black labor from the South to the North following the First World War. He produced his work using a collage painting aesthetic influenced by cubisum and folk art and injected with personal experience. The series was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (even numbers) and the Phillips Collection (odd numbers) and published in Fortune magazine. Lawrence perhaps did not receive the recognition he deserved during his time due to his race. This is a similar issue that female artists had in that they were often categorized by these characteristics and not necessarily their artistic abilities.


Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1950

Throughout the 1940's Bourgeois remained private with her art but was familiar with the artists of New York as she married art historian, Robert Goldwater following her artistic training in Paris. Her work demonstrates a modernist materialistic connection as her sculptures demonstrate her physical connection with the media. Her drawings also take on a similar design aesthetic, though her work adapts throughout the decades with infusions of post modern thought.


There were artists who, like Constable, turned against the city and machine aesthetic to focus on rural life.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

American Gothic depicts a rural scene from Iowa where he was born and raised. The painting became an American icon. It simply depicts a farmer and daughter in front of their pristine house with the Gothic attic window. The figures take on a severe quality and many were convinced that he captured the spirit of America, There is a clear rejection of avant-garde styles in favor of realism. Many were even disturbed by the nationalistic associations of the painting in the light of Germany’s building national pride.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Thomas Hart Benton, Social History of the State of Missouri, 1936

Thomas Hart Benton made a good career of mural painting, gaining many commissions throughout the United States. Social History of the State of Missouri provides many iconic and symbolic representations of the history of the state. The broken perspective and scale gives focus and separates different narrative elements. He demonstrates a commitment to a visually accessible style but injected with a personally fluid aesthetic. His work remained popular due to his reassuring images that helped moral during the time of depression.

Mexican Muralists

Between 1910-1920 was the Mexican Revolution. Muralists took on vast mural cycles in public buildings to validate the history of Mexico.

Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949)

Jose Clemente Orozco, Epic of American Civilization: Hiberno-America, 1932-1934

Orozco's mural depicts a heroic Mexican peasant armed for the revolution. The mural further includes symbolic figures of his oppressors: bankers, government soldiers, officials, gangsters, and the rich. He had previously been trained as an architect so he had command of the ideas of a wall space.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Diego Rivera, Ancient Mexico, 1929-35

Diego Rivera is probably the most well known Mexican muralist and did works both in Mexico and America. He was committed to creating a work that served the peoples needs. Ancient Mexico is a mural that resides among a series of murals for the National Palace in Mexico city. It shows scenes from Mexico’s history and the conflicts between the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadors. It also shows the struggle for Mexican independence.

Shift of the Art World to New York

During the 1930’s with the beginnings of WWII, many European modernists begin emigrating to the United States further influencing the budding art world in the States. Following the war, New York City becomes the major art capital as Paris came under control of the Germans during the time of the war.


Lee Krasner 'White Squares' 1948
Lee Krasner, White Squares, 1948

Described by critic Robert Coates as tying in with the idea of Expressionism in the tradition of Kandinsky:

Except for Hofmann… the artists of the New York School faced many of the same formative cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic issues (of European Modernism). These issues included: the imperative of social relevance; existentialism; the surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind leavened by an American matter-of-factness; the Mexican influence; and the formal vocabulary of European modernism – especially Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism of 1910 to 1914, Mondrian, Picasso’s Guernica, interwar cubismand abstract surrealism. From cubism they took the shallow picture space and the concern with the picture plane. The biomorphic forms and automatist elements came from surrealism and Picasso’s work of the thirties. Early Kandinsky inspired some of the freedom of brushwork and painterliness, and his moral tone fuelled the ethical seriousness of purpose. To these American artists of the forties Kandinsky represented romantic emotionalism and spontinaeity, as opposed to Mondrian, who stood for strict planning, the denial of personality, and intellect (Fineberg 32-33).

Though most all the artists incorporated these sources, each responded differently as they were all in a fairly developmental stage in the forties. All placed paramount emphasis on content or meaningful subject matter in their art which was predominantly abstract. Though they prized individuality, they still came together in a “movement” though all but Hans Hofmann were disappointed with the critics connection to expressionism as they saw themselves as separate from that.

The New York School stressed automatism and action in art. In the developmental phases of their styles, Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and Gottlieb used automatism to develop their ideas through free association as the abstract surrealists had done. Pollock broke from the idea by using it as a device for objectifying an intense conscious experience as it was unfolding rather than a free association of unconscious material. Others also left such practices, and although they resemble such images of the surrealists, they do so through a different, more conscious search of the personal psyche. Surrealists lived in a theatrical, past, present and future. The New York School artists focused on their paintings as entirely in the present and the painting was a result of intensely felt experience.

The New York School also gained much of its influence from Existentialism. Harold Rosenberg stated, “No part of the process in an action painting is purely technical; everything is a meaningful gesture inseparable from the artist’s biography."  Existentialists stressed the idea of individuality. Between 1945 and 1946 many “existentialist” writings came into print in English:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre: action was the means of knowing oneself in relation to the world. “In a word, man must create his own essence; it is in throwing himself into the world, in suffering it, in struggling with it, that – little by little – he defines himself.”
  • Kafka: demanded a fundamental rethinking of experience through his dull terror of the absurd.


  • Thomas Hess: More objective account of the artists.
  • Clement Greenberg: Critic who attempts to lay down the law of artists, categorizing stylistic movements and attempting to change the direction of art.
  • Harold Rosenberg: From more of a literary background, tended to defend intellectual values and had strong sympathies towards the struggling artist.
  • Meyer Schapiro: influenced more as a teacher and critical eye for the artists. He made art seem important and worth you serious thought, often introducing artists to new ideas or directions for their artwork.

    Alexander Calder

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    Alexander Calder, Circus, 1929

    Alexander Calder is an American sculptor who showed inventiveness at an early age and was highly influenced by his child-like desire to play. Calder went to college for engineering by soon left that path to study art at the Art Students League in New York from 1923-26 before moving to Paris, still the capitol of the art world at the time. While in Paris, he became good friends with many of the modern artists such as Miro who's whimisical forms are similar in style to that of Calder's abstract work.

    Calder's earliest works were about interaction and entertainment, mostly influenced by the circus. The circus grew over his lifetime as he continually added more acts. It wasn't until Calder met Piet Mondriaan that he began to take a more serious attitude toward fine art. When visiting Mondriaan's studio, Calder exclaimed:

    It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on. Even the victrola (record Player) which had been some muddy color, was painted red. I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate. And be, with a very serious counterance, said: "No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast."... This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had often heard the word "modern" before, I did not consciously know for feel the term "abstract." So now at thirty-tow, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract (Fineberg 46).

    Calder's work quickly became more abstract, as he said, however the themes of engineering and whimsey still resided in his work.


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    Calder, A Universe, 1934 and Object in Y, 1955

    Cosmic imagery, influenced from an earlier trip that he had had through the Panama Canal evolved out of his wire sculpture techniques. Using counterweights and suspending his sculpture from the ceiling, he was able to make his structures move. These planes and forms also moved through space, providing a differing experience for the viewer every time that they came to view the work. It was abstraction in motion. Marcel Duchamp, upon seeing these sculptures, suggested to name these moving sculptures "mobiles." Later, Calder produced more rigid pieces without motion that Jean Arp joked should be named "stabiles," a name that characterized much of Calder's other work:

    Calder, Flamingo, 1974

    Hans Hofmann

    Hans Hofmann, Landscape, 1941

    Hans Hofmann retains a European aesthetic to his artwork unlike other artists of the New York School. He was German and from 1904-1914 he painted in Paris and frequented the Café du Dome where he met many of the leading Parisian artists: Picasso, Braque, Pascin, Rouault, Picabia, Matisse, Leger. Although he didn’t have personal relations with German Expressionists, he stored some of Kandinsky’s paintings in his studio. In the Fall of 1931, he moved to New York City and taught at the Art Students League for two years and then opened his own school.

    Through his courses, he taught European Modernism and what the French call “belle peinture” (the beautiful handling of paint): nuances of handling paint and color based on firsthand experience with Kandinsky and Fauvism, an analytical approach to pictorial structure (based on cubism and Cezanne) and spirituality (also from Kandinsky’s romantic abstractions). Art had nothing to do with politics or social consciousness. Stressed drawing and lectured on pictorial structure, paint handling and inventive expression through materials.

    Theory: Hofmann wrote essays on art theory encompassing the spiritual ideas of Mondrian and Kandinsky. He states, “The artist’s technical problem is how to transform the material with which he works back into the sphere of the spirit (Fineberg 54).” He separated this spirituality from the artists’ social aims, focusing on visual structure and an emotional dimension (“spirituality”). He also describes specific laws of painting emphasizing the notion of the picture plane:

    • essence=picture plane
    • The picture plane must be preserved in its two-dimensionality
    • “Depth, in a pictorial, plastic sense, is not created by the arrangement of objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary (and in absolute denial of this doctrine), by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull.”
    • Push and pull= all movement within a painting necessarily implies a reciprocal movement in the opposing direction; movement into pictorial space demands a balanced advance toward the viewer.


    Jackson Pollock

    Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock in his studio,

    Willem De Kooning pointed out that “every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again (Fineberg 86).” Hofmann (who as we mentioned before taught a strict compositional structure taken from nature and European modernism) said of Pollock in 1942, “You don’t work from nature. You work by heart. This is no good. You will repeat yourself.” Pollock responds, “I am nature… Put up or shut up. Your theories don’t interest me (Fineberg 86).” Pollock was a stubborn artist and highly emotional as well as defensive.

    In 1930 Pollock headed for New York where he began attending classes with his eldest brother Charles at the Art Students League. There he studied under Thomas Hart Benton until 1933. Benton’s style and subject matter also dominated Pollock’s artwork until 1938. In 1936, Pollock worked in Siqueirous’s (El Duco) Union Square workshop. There he experimented with unorthodox materials and applications of paint such as splattering and dripping.

    An essay by John Graham in 1937 called, “Primitive Art and Picasso” also had a profound impact on Pollock’s development. In it Graham demonstrates a belief that the unconscious mind provided essential knowledge and creative power and that primitive art offered a direct access to this material. And most importantly, the Europeans arrived in New York around 1939 which provided further focus on the idea of the unconscious as a source for art.

    Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950

    These paintings take some cues from jazz according to Lee Krasner who said that Pollock thought jazz “was the only other really creative thing happening in this country.” Widely ridiculed throughout his life even though the implications of these drip paintings were recognized within the art world almost immediately.


    In 1949 Life Magazine did an article on Pollock, “Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” and in 1950, Hans Namuth made a short film of Pollock working:

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    Direct Link

    Barnett Newman

    Barnett Newman, Onement I, 1944

    Barnett Newman’s painting has to do with the notion of the sublime and contrasted “the Greek, plastic achievement.” Newman believed that through experience and intuition came spirituality and not the Greek aesthetic of physical beauty of the object. Newman organized an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1947 called “The Ideographic Picture." An "Ideograph" is a written symbol that communicates an idea directly rather than through language or through the meditation of any symbolic form. Newman wrote about seeking the modern equivalent to “primitive” art in which the abstract shape itself is a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings that he (the Kwakiutl Indian) felt before the terror of the unknowable. The abstract shape was, therefore, real rather than a formal “abstraction” of a visual fact with its overtone of an already known nature. Nor was it a purist illusion with its overload of pseudo-scientific truths. He also believed that the artist is a revolutionary in search of universal truths (Fineberg 99).

    Newman was left out of the Federal Art Project that most of the other abstract expressionists were a part due to his income teaching. He did not want to make something that a collector could acquire as an object without engaging its content. So he wrote about art and encouraged his friends until he could figure out his own painting as he developed slowly towards his own technique. During 1939-41, Newman studies science, especially botany and ornithology looking for ideas on the beginnings of life how it emerged and its orders developed, seeking an analog in genisis of though and the evolution of the human mind.

    “The Plasmic Image” Newman (1943-45): All artists whether primitive or sophisticated, have been involved in the handling of chaos. The painter of the new movement… is therefore not concerned with geometric forms per se but in creating forms which by their abstract nature carry some abstract intellectual content. There is an attempt being made to assign a Surrealist explanation to the use these painters make of abstract forms… (but) Surrealism is interested in a dream world that will penetrate the human psyche. To that extent it is an mundane expression… The present painter is concerned, not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality, but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into the metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy… the artist tries to wrest truth from the void (Fineberg 100).

    In his painting, Onement I, we begin to understand what Newman is alluding to. All of these ideas took a long time to come to fruition in an image that seemed “right”. He found his direction in a this small painting. It was a painting that had sat unfinished in his studio and he could never bring himself to touch it and he couldn’t figure out why until he sat and worked out the imagery of it.

    Newman referred to the line straight down the middle as a “zip.” The zip creates a symmetry which reduces the problem about composition, and forced the viewer to read into the underlying ideas of the painting rather than viewing it simply as an art object. These zips allude to how Newman ranked knowledge on three levels:

    • Data and rules learned without any reference to the intellect.
    • Things learned by deduction or logic.
    • Immediate knowledge, using reason, but obtained through direct intuition to the essence of things, an insight that went beyond reason, “The Sublime”

    Newman was after an epiphany where he tries to relate all the ideas of nature, spirituality, creation into one ideogram.


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    Newman, Onement IV, 1949 and Onement V, 1952

    After Onement II, Newman began painting prolifically using this notion of the zip. Although the zip is not placed in the center every time, it is structured around a mathematical structure premeditated. Though premeditated, these paintings have an affinity with action paintings of the time due to their experience of immediacy. Newman also began painting on a larger scale. As Motherwell said at the time:

    The large format, at the one blow, destroyed the century long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic… One of the great images should be the house-painter’s brush, in the employ of a grand vision dominated by an ethical sensibility that makes the usual painter’s brush indeed picayune (Fineberg 102).


    Alberto Giacometti

    As early as 1932, Giacometti began working on figurative sculpture, but after five years of work from life, he failed to finish any sculpture and was never satisfied with his ability to portray what was before him. Until 1945 he struggled until, through drawing he came to the belief that he was only capturing a likeness when he made his people tall and slender.

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    Alberto Giacometti, Small Nude and Grande Femme IV

    Giacometti exhibited these tall thin figures in 1948 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It was his first one-man show in fourteen years.

    Existentialism stresses a radical reduction to the essence or beginning of things. Giacometti’s work was more involved with the process of discovery than with the final result or any aesthetic objective. (Pollock and de Kooning). Giacometti pushed aside training to portray what was in front of him. He found this impossible and thus began again and again until someone would finally come to his studio and remove the work for show. His works make reference to ancient Greek sculpture as well. A new sort of ideal. Much like action painting, the figures deal with the intimate presence of the artist. Later in his life, he began giving his figures real presence and identity.

    Francis Bacon

    Francis Bacon emerged at the end of WWII with images of figures transformed through the unconscious. He would begin, like Giacometti, to paint as he saw the object and then transform it using what he also saw in the object and the processes from his unconscious mind.

    Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

    Bacon's painting demonstrates a claustrophobic space, pressure of vertical strokes close in uncomfortably while the figure blurs out anonymously. His approach goes beyond surrealism in its adherence to the overt subject matter and comes closer to Freud. This painting couples the painting of Pope Innocent X with the screaming nurse on the Odessa Steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin. The film shows the nurse’s face with her mought wide open and blood streaming from her eye. He also used the contemporary photographs of Pope Pius XII for such details as the glasses. Bacon specifically states,

    I’d bought that very beautiful hand-colored book on diseases of the mouth and, when I made the Pope screaming, I didn’t want to do it in the way that I did it – I wanted to make the mouth, with the beauty of its colour and everything, look like one of the sunsets… of Monet (Fineberg 144).

    Bacon, Self Portrait, 1971

    In his self portrait, the artist seems imprisoned behind a mask, but there is a painterly beauty much like a cubist or futurist rendering.

    Bacon, Painting, 1946

    In Painting, the figure with slabs of meat behind him on a glass top table was inspired by a process of free association from images of WWII of Hitler and Mussolini speaking. Bacon describes,

    I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And… suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture… It was like one continuous accident. (Fineberg 144)

    This painting however shows many of the repeated images for his work, the tubular table (from the time he spent designing furniture), the flayed beef hanging as though crucified, closed blinds with dangling cords, in a claustrophobic room, umbrella obliterating the eyes, an open mouth with exposed teeth, more raw meat on the table, and an oriental rug on the floor. Bacon further states,

    I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion. (Fineberg 144)

    The painting deals with the horror of life and how one thing lives off another and how there is no escape.


    Jean Dubuffet

    Jean Dubuffet, Childbirth, 1944

    Jean Dubuffet lived in Paris in the 1940s. He left his wine business and started painting in 1942 during the German occupation. Dubuffet depicted mostly ordinary views of daily life. He painted in a very child-like style influenced directly by graffiti and the art of children. The surfaces are thick with paint and many times the lines are scratched into this texture much like the graffiti of the time.


    Dubuffet, 1946: "It is the man in the street that I am after, whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence and connivance, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work” (Fineberg 131).

    Dubuffet’s search for a style that would be understood by everyman brought him to the idea of the primitive. His work breaks from the “Greek Plastic” as Barnett Newman would say. He wanted to appeal to everyman, but also to make a fresh unconventional exploration of such grand philosophical themes as the origins of thought and the evanescence of the individual instead of the prejudices of the culture surrounding him. The threat of disintegration into the environment and ultimately into the universe of undifferentiated matter is a pervasive theme. Dubuffet looked to the art of children Stating,

    My persistent curiosity about children’s drawings, and those of anyone who has never learned to draw, is due to my hope of finding… the affective reactions that link each individual to the things that surround him and happen to catch his eye (Fineberg 131).

    Children’s rendering of experience is less dominated by cultural norms. Dubuffet’s method resembles automatism in the sense that he allows the painted truth to come out as the painting progresses on the canvas.


    Willem de Kooning

    Willem and Elaine de Kooning in the studio, Photograph by Hans Namuth

    Willem de Kooning’s inability to “finish” paintings made him legendary. He would talk about his large Woman paintings by saying, “Its not finished, but it’s a good painting.” The fact that his work seems unfinished is what makes it great. De Kooning once said, “There is no plot in painting, it’s an occurrence which I discover by and has no message (Fineberg 74).” His open-ended thought process of approaching a painting allowed him to be coupled with the action painters of the forties as he would constantly create and destroy his images. De Kooning actually admitted that he felt a deep engagement with old masters such as Rembrandt and Titian more than the modernists as he continuously reverted back to the figurative image.

    De Kooning studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques which stressed craftsmanship in the classical sense. Because of this training, de Kooning had many technical tricks which became useful to other artists trying to emulate styles and effects. He joined the Federal Art Project like many artists during the depression and enjoyed the income gained during this time, though he didn’t show much of his work, he fell into the circle of artists and intellectuals of the time.

    Around 1939, the trademarks of de Kooning’s style began to emerge. His paintings start to show the artist’s method of working, which also provides a very unfinished look. This comes from what de Kooning referred to as a “frozen glimpse” where his visible changes of mind or pentimenti become directly evident in the finished work. Unlike previous artists’ work (Picasso and the moderns), de Kooning’s painting is less refined as it refrains from hiding such changes or process.

    Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels, 1945

    As time progressed, de Kooning’s paintings of women broke apart more and more as his trial and error process gave way to multiple layers of thought. These figurative forms gave way to more chaotic compositions as de Kooning began multiplying figurative shapes, sometimes tracing them from other works creating vast layers of figurative abstraction. De Kooning believed that all abstract shapes had to have a likeness or familiarity and the figure provided that for him.

    De Kooning, Excavation, 1950

    By 1950, de Kooning’s figurative abstractions had gotten to a point much like Pollock’s expressive drip paintings. It is said that this painting represents a “no environment” where forms change scale throughout the composition as the impressions of New York City had done for de Kooning. Though a large canvas, it engages the viewer with detail as something to be read over time in the fashion that it was painted.

    Mark Rothko

    Hans Namuth, Mark Rothko in his studio with the Rothko Chapel series, c. 1964

    Most people know of Mark Rothko’s large rectangular clouds of color. Rothko relates his structure to a means of “dealing with human emotion with the human drama as much as I can possibly experience it. His works deal with the complex and turbulent mind, plagued with depression, but also a desire to express profound content in his works. Like Newman, Rothko’s work deals with the simplicity that sets value and ideas in the fore and resembles a primitive force of the absolute epiphany.

    Mark Rothko, No. 2, 1951

    By 1949, Rothko had settled into a mature style with his color field works. His large geometric forms gave way to an allover compositional structure that read instantly and rejected memory. In teaching art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, Rothko found an interest in how children dealt with the ideas of space: The scale conception involves the relationships of objects to their surroundings – the emphasis of things or space. It definitely involves a space emotion. A child may limit space arbitrarily and then heroify his objects. Or he may infinitize space, dwarfing the importance of objects. It becomes evident in his color choices and scales of his color forms that he is making choices similar to these children as he develops a universal idea with wich to contemplate.

    Rothko, Untitled, 1953

    Rothko admitted to being reluctant to remove himself from figural representation in any way, but he said that “Shapes have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms. He was attempting, like Newman to remove associations to specific decisions on life and express a more universal truth.


    David Smith and Sculpture

    David Smith, Aerial Construction, 1936

    In the same way painters shifted from tradition to an existential introspection, many sculptors did the same, most notably David Smith. Smith used a process of welding which allowed for free association of forms and constant change without conviction about the piece of sculpture. Welding also allowed for the artist’s hand to be viewed in the work unlike bronze casting. Smith also saw the material of metal and machine as a heroic, masculine endeavor, characterized by aggressiveness which he linked to the primitive and essential nature of “art”.

    After 1950, Smith turned exclusively to welding and created several landscape images keeping a single viewing position in mind and little actual depth. This combines the pictorial illusion of a shallow cubist space within a three dimensional object.

    Throughout the early 1950’s, Smith also moved to the existential views of totemic imagery. He freely associated metallic objects to create “tanktotems” referring to the idea of steel (tank) and the totemic (totem) images. During this time he also began embarking on the idea of series which drove him on to the end of his career with three major series, Voltri and Cubi and Zig.

    Smith, Cubi Series, 1962-64

    After seeing some of Giacometti’s forgings which were indicative of anthropromorphic figures and totemic images, he recalls that art is not divorced from life and figural imagery should still be evident in his work. At this time he also attempted to place his sculpture in real space by removing or incorporating the bases of the object as an integral part of the sculpture. They were not objects to be placed on a pedestal, but within the viewer’s space. In 1961, Smith began working on his Cubi series.

    The stainless steel made it more difficult for free association as he did not have the tools to cut such steel. He had to work geometrically and often had many of these geometric shapes lying around the studio so that he had the options for free association. Many times he would create these sculptures using cardboard or other box material and then order the steel later. The Cubi series retains a sense of the figural and his flattening of space. The sculptures require a fixed viewing angle as if created two dimensionally.

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    Smith, Votri Series, 1962

    In 1962, Smith was asked to Italy for a summer arts festival and was allowed a space in an abandoned steel factory in Voltri. He created about 27 sculptures in one month as he was allowed to use anything he found. Many evoked the idea of train cars from the nearby tracks and the idea of larger scale pieces. He then returned back to his studio in Bolton Landing to create more of his Cubi series. He focused on large scale and rough finish of his welds to represent the spontinaety of the welding action.

    Smith, Zig, 1961

    Smith liked the way that the stainless steel reflected the light, but he would rather have had a more spontaneous look as in his Zig series done around this same time. The zigs are all painted steel which relates more to a hand-worked quality. He found it intriguing to “reduce the human form to cubes – exploited by Cambiaso” who had also done the same in his sixteenth century mannerist drawings of figures. The geometric forms are also indicative of Henry Moore’s sculpture where the figure is also reduced classically into these geometric/morphing forms.


    In an important essay of 1965 entitled “ABC Art” Barbara Rose wrote about the emergence of “an art whose blank, neutral, mechanical impersonality contrasts so violently with the romantic biographical abstract expressionist style which preceded it that spectators are chilled by its apparent lack of feeling or content (Rose 58).” Minimal art as it came to be known gravitated toward geometric forms or modular sequences especially in sculpture which was placed not on pedestals but on the floor or wall to stress its continuity with real space.

    This artform Shocked the viewers who were accustomed to the visual complexities of gesture painting. It was aggressively authoritarian, a “displaced will to power,” and in particular white male power. (after the fascist movement) This style required a large amount of supporting writings to reveal the motives behind the apparently simple works. Much like Clement Greenberg’s formalism, the simple object might generate the most complex theories. Ironically, Greenberg disliked the minimalists’ work even though they pursued his theoretical prescriptions for modernism with greater rigor. Greenberg discounted minimalism as contrived, “something deduced instead of felt or discovered" (Fineberg 294). Reinhardt attacked references in art and proclaimed the new academy of art would have twelve rules: no texture, no brushwork, no drawing, no forms, no design, no color, no light, no space, no time, no size or scale, no movement, and finally no object.

    Frank Stella

    Frank Stella, Untitled, 1960

    Stella’s work stems from Johns’ idea of the painting as an object. He singled out formal ideas from paintings of Johns one by one and followed them to a logical extreme in abstract terms. He eliminated the subject and the painterly touch and gave them greater scale. There is no detail and the canvas can be viewed all at once. This gave way to a shaped canvas which made it feel even more like an object than a painting. Stella often endowed his paintings with emotional titles and made the shallow space of abstract expressionism seem old fashioned. He had posed and solved the problem of the painting’s presence as an object, a question posed since Cezanne.

    Frank Stella, Firuzabad III, 1970

    Later, in the mid-sixties, Stella moves to Day-Glo colors and studio assistants increasingly work on his painting for him to emphasize the painting as an object.

    Donald Judd

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    Judd fulfills Tatlin’s machine-age prescription for “real materials in real space.” However, Judd has no social message behind his art, it is purely formal. If an image suggested three dimensions, the three dimensions existed and were not illusions or representations.The viewer would immediately recognize any pattern in the work instead of it’s compositional elements. They eliminate any idea to composition and allow for more complex form. Geometry could be used in a non-Neo-Plastic way, an impure way without the purity that geometric art seemed to have. Mondrian, though really great, is too ideal and clean. In another way, Reinhardt is too. That was not a believable quality for me. Stella’s painting had a possibility that became evident of an impure geometric art.

    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966-68

    By the mid-sixties, Judd made enough money through his art to have it machine fabricated rather than hand tooled giving it an even more materialisticly minimal quality. The object becomes the object, and can be seen as a whole, seemingly repeated infinitely through commercial/industrial processes.

    Tony Smith

    Tony Smith, Die, 1962

    Born 1912 and was a part of the abstract expressionist generation and taught several of the minimalists. His main contribution to art was his calibrated scale of his works to their site. He undercut the notion of monumentality by making them responsive to the architectural or natural setting. Why didn’t you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer? When someone asked Smith about Die, a six-foot black steel cube from 1962, he responded, "I was not making a monument." The observer then said, "Then why didn’t you make it smaller so the observer could see over the top?" Smith replied, "I was not making an object" (Fineberg 301).

    Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965

    Smith explored the idea of a holistic image, an image that could be viewed all at once as a single form. Minimal art emphasizes the “gestalt” where they expect that the viewer could continue the form with the preconceived notions as to what is given to them.

    Dan Flavin

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    Dan Flavin, Untitled, 1964-1970

    Began working exclusively with new industrially fabricated florescent tubes and fixtures in 1963. He choreographed light from the tubes investigating the idea of space as a sculpture rather than form. Each piece becomes dependent on sight rather than the piece itself, and any piece can be recreated by anyone willing to go to a hardware store to pick up the materials to make it. The light indicated the sublime as if a modern technological fetish. Much like Newman, his lights are simple, and carry a holistic quality.

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    Sol LeWitt

    Sol LeWitt, Corner House, 1976

    Sol Lewitt applied the minimalists’ system of logic and literalness to the creations of his work without much care for the literal object. He separated the process from the object itself. In 1967 LeWitt demonstrates that the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive; it is involved with all types of mental processes, and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. The underlying concept was referred to as its “grammar”

    Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing, 1968

    The Wall Drawings begun in 1968 involved this set of predetermined procedures listed by LeWitt and carried out by assistants directly on the wall of the gallery. Broke the conventions of the art object because of the way they can be removed and re-created according to the instruction without the need of the artist. Sometimes he emphasized this by having the instruction written on the wall next to the piece.

  • Notes:

    This module was produced by Professor Josh Yavelberg utilizing a mixture of open educational resources and notes from:
    Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective,|. Vol. 2. Boston: Cengage Learning, Print, 2013. 
    Feinberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Print, 2012.

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