In the early part of the 20th century, New York City was the emerging center of the modern and the avant-garde in America: a city of immigrants transforming their surroundings into a vital cultural center for new ideas, strains of thought and the arts. Painting was prevailingly imitative and representational, and artists who deviated from these conventions were seen as radical, shocking and sometimes outrageous. These artists found inspiration in the city’s architecture, its dynamic energy, and the geometry of its avenues and skyscrapers, influences they combined in order to create a new emergent artistic practice that would be the greatest rewriting of the rules of art making since the Renaissance.
Artists such as George L.K. Morris, Ralston Crawford, and Esphyr Slobodkina were staunch advocates for this new visual language of the modern in American art that prioritized metaphor, ordered line, and experimentation above any impulse for realism. Included here is an array of important and representative paintings and works on paper demonstrating twelve artists’ paths to American Modernism. These artists experimented with Cubism, Surrealism, Biomorphic Abstractions, Futurism, Precisionism and Constructivism: all visual languages that straddled the line between semi-representational and fully non-objective imagery. Signature to these historically significant works are an indisputably American optimistic spirit – full of bright colors, jazzy shapes and rhythms – and a sense of flatness that enfolds the surface.
Visible in these works is the influence of the American Abstract Artists (AAA), an important artist-led group founded in 1936 in New York dedicated to promoting abstraction as a valid American art form. Three artists in this show were founders of the AAA (Morris, Slobodkina and Weisenborn). The AAA was a predecessor of and set the stage for Abstract Expressionism, and contributed greatly to the development and acceptance of abstract art in America, eventually evolving into the art movement known as the New York School.