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American Moderns

In the early years of the 20th century, the reshaping of American art was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Artists such as Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Gerald Murphy, and Morgan Russell traveled abroad and experimented with ways to transform traditional subject matter into avant-garde statements of personal expression. However, other progressive artists, among them Georgia O'Keeffe, took abstracted natural forms or unmistakably American subjects (such as skyscrapers, grain elevators, and wonders of mechanical engineering) as their point of departure in creating an art that was both modern and American.

Two events in particular galvanized the exchange of aesthetic ideas between Europe and America: the Armory Show of 1913 and the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, both held in New York. Nude Descending a Staircase, by the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, appeared in the Armory Show and was derisively caricatured and retitled Rude Descending a Staircase. In 1917, Duchamp's attempt to exhibit Fountain, a porcelain urinal, not only challenged the concept of what constitutes art, but also overstepped the bounds of American propriety. These exhibitions, where many American artists saw contemporary trends of Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism for the first time, came as a shock and a challenge-as if a gauntlet had been thrown down in their very midst.

Marsden Hartley, A Nice Time, 1915
Marsden Hartley
A Nice Time, 1915