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How did abstract art find its way into the United States? Explore the development of American abstraction and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

American Abstraction

What do you think of when you think of an American style of art? It’s actually kind of a difficult question and one that many people debate. There seem to be two sorts of ideas. The rugged romanticism of 19th-century landscapes, and the abstract expressionism kicked off by Jackson Pollock. So, how do we go from one to the other?At one point, America had to undergo a major shift in the way it thought about art. Europe began this transformation way back in the late 19 century with the Impressionists, and similar later movements that focused less on the physical realism of a painting and more on abstraction.

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American artists, not wanting to be left behind, found their own ways to embrace these ideas, opening up American tastes to the abstract.

The Armory Show

So, when did American artists first start to really embrace the abstract? Ironically, the answer is pretty concrete. We can trace the real arrival of abstraction to America to February 17, 1913. You didn’t know we could be so specific, huh? From February 17 to March 15, New York hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art in the old 69th Regiment’s armory building. This event has been remembered as the Armory Show.Without a doubt, this was one of the most important moments in the history of American art, when European and American artists presented their works together, as intellectual equals. Amongst the Europeans to contribute were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and Wassily Kandinsky, to name a few.

These were some of the leading figures in modern abstract art, and through the Armory Show, their ideas and styles became more available to American artists. Some Europeans, like Duchamp, eventually moved to America to help promote abstract art. Others simply talked, shared ideas, and bounced ideas back and forth with American counterparts. While many members of the American public were shocked and scandalized by the European abstractions, American artists saw a chance to explore new ideas, and they took to those ideas with enthusiasm.

American Abstract Art

Many American artists embraced the attitudes of European modern art, but this doesn’t mean they were out to copy it. American abstract art reflected a close relationship to European counterparts, but always carried a distinct flavor. This is Lucky Strike, painted by Stuart Davis in 1921:

Lucky Strike by Stuart Davis (1921)
Painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas (1927)
Noahs ark

Now, obviously, there’s some influence from cubism here. But cubism itself was inspired by African folk art, so was Douglas imitating European artists or reclaiming borrowed African styles as an African-American artist? Noah’s Ark is culturally and religiously powerful, expressing a distinct artistic viewpoint coming out of Harlem.And I think we have time for one last example.

So, let’s talk about Charles Demuth. Demuth was a Precisionist, which is a term applied to American abstract artists fascinated by the role of the machine in modern life. America was a largely industrial society by the 1920s, and Precisionists admired the speed, strength, cultural power and, yes, precision of the machine age.

Here’s his 1927 My Egypt:

My Egypt by Charles Demuth (1927)
my egypt

Yet again, here are those cubist-inspired abstractions. But the subject is a grain elevator, an industrial machine broken into spatial fragments. In the choice of subject and presentation, Demuth was part of a growing American trend to use European-inspired abstraction to capture an essence of American life.

Lesson Summary

In 1913, New York hosted the Armory Show, an international exhibition of modern art.

This event brought European and American artists together to trade ideas and styles. It also showed the world that America believed it could be as great an artistic center as Europe. After the Armory Show, many American artists embraced a new level of abstraction, inspired by European styles but with distinctly American interpretations.Many, like Stuart Davis, looked to the rhythm of American urban culture. Others, like Aaron Douglas, used African-American cultural identity for inspiration. And some, like Charles Demuth, and the Precisionists, focused on the American industrial machine as the foundation of American identity.

However they did it, these American artists helped bring abstraction into the national aesthetic.

Learning Outcomes

After seizing the opportunity to explore this lesson, you could realize these goals:

  • Assess the impact of the Armory Show on the art world
  • Compile the contributions of Stuart Davis, Aaron Douglas and Charles Demuth to the development of American abstraction

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