All About American Modernism

One of the things that make Modern Art in America interesting is that American Modernism did not last long but it has had a lasting effect on art and popular culture, both in America and worldwide.

american modernism

American modernism is a cultural and artistic movement that began at the start of the 20th century and was at its height between World War I and World War II. 

American modernism created art that continues to inspire new artists to this day. But taking into consideration America’s long-held inferiority complex in what was a largely Eurocentric art scene, Modernist art in America is often associated with some long-held tenets and canons which can easily be disputed. 

Largely abstract work grew from rejection, bucking the trend of artistic convention, and suddenly, art was free from its traditional confines and more open to interpretation. During the Roaring Twenties, Modernist artists and, by extension, American modernist paintings were influenced by the movement in the USA and people gained confidence in the Modernist movement, which was distinct from the European style. 

Modern American Art

american modern art

One of the distinct benefits of American Modernism is that the artists were immigrants from different cultures. Artists were inspired by the diversity that surrounded them.

Caribbean, African, Asian, Australian, and European cultures were looked to for their work and the influence was a reflection of American life in the new century. There were artists whose work was ignored or the importance was minimized to fit certain narratives.

Eurocentric art critics like Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg tended to reinvent who really mattered. However, Agee is not to be ignored as a curator of the MoMA and a director of MFA Houston, a Professor at Hunter College, Agee has presented many notable exhibitions over the last four decades.

Agee says that some artists and decades of American Art were badly treated during what he refers to as the Dark Age of American Art. He writes that critics cast off American Art in favor of the traditional style of European Art by Artists like Joan Mir and Picasso.

Clement Greenberg went on to argue that modern art excludes everything outside, but the truth is many works dealt with issues in society like feminism, and life in the heart of a major city. During the great depression, many people became jaded and disillusioned with the economy.

American Artists Embrace European Influences

American modernist art

American artists really embraced color, and many paintings during the first half of the 1920s depended on color. American artists embraced Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, and both Europeans and local artists were able to learn from one another. At the end of the 20s, the Great Depression loomed eroding the economic stability of the USA.

During this era at the beginning of the 20th century, cubist landscapes began to appear along with still-life portraits. At this time, many American artists including Patrick Henry and Gerald Murphy, and many others went to Europe, mostly to Paris. The focus shifted to the modern city and emphasized diversity. Modernism appeared to bridge the gap between the diverse audience and the art, and a growing number of museums and galleries sprang up. At this time the visual arts became very important to the American people, and the general public became interested in going to Galleries and looking at art, and this was something that had not happened before.

Directions of American Modernism

American Modernism

There was not a single style as modernism evoked the desire to push the boundaries and develop new highly colorful styles. Modern art was going beyond fixed ideas and principles. The main American modernism movements were:

  • the Stieglitz group
  • the Arensberg circle
  • Precisionism
  • the Independents
  • there are several others, including New York Independents.

American Modernist Artists

The Mother of American Modernism was Georgia O’Keeffe since the 1920s she had received a lot of recognition for her various works, including Ram’s Head, and Little Hills. Another esteemed painter of that time was Aaron Douglas an African-American artist whose paintings were hugely influential, and one of his most popular works was the crucifixion.

It was published in James Weldon Johnsons’s God’s Trombones (1927). Clearly delineating shadows and light. African American religious tradition is depicted in this artwork.


In the 1920s new techniques were developed by a group of artists in Paris, and the Surrealist movement experimented with new photography techniques.

By the early 1920s photographers moved toward straight photography where they didn’t soften the picture in any way, but dealt with reality. Sometimes people found this a bit harsh and confronting as the subject was supposed to look objective. An example of this type of harsh reality is Rrose Selavy’s (Marcel Duchamp) 1921 photograph by Man Ray.

Agee writes that we teach modern art history incorrectly, as a series of innovations by younger emerging artists. However, older artists are still working, adding to what has come before and often doing the best works last, often in their final decade. This is true of Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, and many others. As in many other areas of artistic endeavor their true talents were not recognized until they were dead. It is not until we see their work and really study them that we come to realize their true genius.

Modern American Art After 1945

The year 1945 marked another turning point when Piet Mondrian did his iconic American color-field painting and the New Yorker coined the phrase Abstract Impressionism in 1946.

The United States played a pivotal role in the modernist movement. and it led to much more interesting architecture where new materials for building were developed. Some see modernism as art for art’s sake, others see it as a true artistic medium for self-expression.

As Americans became more educated, they started to embrace modernism, and it was something that many could relate to. An enlightened movement where artists are seeking to represent reality differently in a new and modern way to fit in with the industrialized world.

The widespread cultural changes that were taking place in the first half of the 1920s are expressed in the modernism movement where people were seeking reality. While trying to make sense of the rapid changes taking place around them, and searching for a new way to express their changing concept of creativity.

The cultural mix of races found in America was a gift to the modernism movement, adding so much color to the landscapes and still life paintings bringing a new direction to art.