On The Cusp
Eduard Jean Steichen, Mountain of the Crouching Lion, 1916, Private collection
Eduard Jean Steichen, 1879-1973
Mountain of the Crouching Lion, 1916
Oil on board
Private collection
Click on images to enlarge them

Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Elegant Woman in Blue Dress, c. 1893-94, Antonello Family Foundation Marsden Hartley, An Evening Mountainscape, 1909, Private collection
George Wesley Bellows, Upper Broadway, 1907, Collection of Michael and Jean Antonello

In the first decade of the twentieth century in America, many aesthetic styles uncomfortably coexisted as they struggled for critical and commercial success. Tonalism was slipping off its pedestal and slowly playing itself out. Conversely, American Impressionism was finding the public acceptance that had eluded the movement for so long. Into this mix of waxing and waning popularity stepped the young turks of a new generation determined to set itself apart from the dictates of tradition. However, to do so they needed a forum in which to exhibit, and the conservative National Academy of Design, which controlled access to the exhibitions, stood between them and the exposure they sought for their work.

Breaking existing conventions required creative solutions. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz insti-gated change from outside the system as he championed photography as a fine art. His progressive agenda soon expanded to include the cutting-edge American avant-garde art by painters such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley.

Meanwhile, a coterie of artists who became known as The Eight (and later, the Ashcan School) dedicated themselves to capturing the gritty realities of daily life among the common classes, and their coarse subjects, decried by the critics, seemed materially matched to the raw manner of their execution. Although they were stylistically diverse, they were bound together by a belief in democratic exhibition practices, and ultimately they revolutionized notions of what a progressive modern exhibition could be. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that many of these artists were integral to the planning and staging of the Armory Show of 1913, when contemporary European art debuted to the American public.

Ironically, the Armory Show would undermine the careers of some of its organizers. The realism of their work suddenly seemed conservative in comparison to the abstractions of Cubism and the exclamatory colors of Expressionism. Regardless, it was their tireless work that shifted the very foundations of a system previously unwilling to embrace the forces of change. In this way, they forged a revolutionary path for art in the new American century.