American Art – 1908-1968

It became clear that if I was going to continue reading art history, I need help and direction. Professor William Agee teaches American art history at Hunter College.  He is very kind man and allowed me to audit his class.  Unfortunately his class conflicted with my need to take an advanced printing class at ICP.  So, I had to drop Professor Agee’s class.  However, I got an extraordinarily good reading list from him and will be posting on those readings as they happen.  

Prof Agee wrote an article for the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, which he shared with the class.  Below are direct verbatim quotations from that article.  Clearly, I need to dig deeper into the work of Charles Sheeler.


Notes from: “American Art, 1910-1950s: Themes, Traditions, Continuities” by William C. Agee; Unknown Publication, Unknown Date

Page 71: “One might say that modern American realism began with a focus on the reality of perception, the immediacy of viewer’s engagement with the paintings and their effect on the viewer.  This stems from the modern artist’s desire to engage the view as directly as possible, through an unmediated experience of the painting, by removing all visual or narrative elements between the artist and painting, and between the viewer and the painting.  We can thus feel the reality of the painting itself as an independent object, not so much as a picture of something, but rather as something in its own right, obeying its own laws and dictates.”

Page 76: “That American artists have looked so often to the immediate and real world around them places them in the midst of a continuing, modern question and quest that can be termed the “art and life” issue, which has as its fundamental concerns the sources and purposes of art:  Where should art come from?  What should be its subject? Or does it even have a subject”  To whom should it be addressed”  Although it absorbed the modernists, this issue had its roots in mid-nineteenth-century France, at a time when art had all but been cut loose from its traditional sources of royal and religious patronage.”

Page 76: — See Ad Reinhardt’s writings:  “Art-as-Art” …

Page 79: “Color has been crucial in shaping the structure and creating the mood of modern art, and it is in itself a key agent in constructing a painting.  We think less of color and give it less attention than line and drawing – the clear, sharp linear precision of John Singleton Copley or Charles Sheeler, for example – because we mistakenly think of color as decorative in the pejorative sense, less serious or complex than line.  This is a long standing prejudice, dating to the Renaissance, a period that held Florentine disengno to be superior to Venetian colore. But color is just as complex and just as profound, both formally and emotively, for it can often be the subject of the painting itself while affecting us at our deepest emotive levels.  As an independent element, freed from its old role as a supporting agent to linear shaping, color has been fundamental to the development of modern art, especially abstract painting.”

Page 89: — On Josef Albers -> “It has been harder in this country to establish a broad understanding of he language of geometric abstraction, for we are too quick to assume that geometric art is cold and impersonal.  It is intense and emotively powerful, brought alive by the power of richness of color.  Albers insisted on set formats based on order, clarity, precision, and careful disposition and weighing of color.  Geometry is far from static, however, for all these qualities together create a discrepancy between apparently simple physical facts of the painting and the resulting ambiguities of psychic effect.  Thus the abstract shapes that seem so simple and clear are in fact filled with pictorial illusionism and with ever-changing perspectives and perceptual facts that confront and challenge us anew each time we experience the painting.  These works tell us – indeed, demand of us – that we look closely at the world around us.”

Page 101:  Agee compares Patrick Henry Bruce’s Peinture/Nature morte c. 1924 with Edward Hopper’s Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928 — not sure I understand.

Page 106->112 …. Discussion on Charles Sheeler.  Need to dig deeper.

Page 113: on Classicism:  “The drive to clarity in American modern painting – by which the artist, like the scientist, seeks the simplest, most economical and elegant solution – was often achieved by embracing means that can be considered classical in their source.  Classicism here does not refer to a dry, academic traditionalism, but rather to work that takes inspiration from the best of classical art – whether that of ancient Greece and Rome or of the Renaissance – or that embodies the qualities of order, balance, harmony, and solidity that we consider at the core of the classical spirit. It can even derive from certain styles and practices that we associate with classical art, such as drawing.   We often think of modern art solely as revolutionary, wishing only to break with the past, but this is not the case.  Many artist, such as Cezanne, sought to make something solid and durable, to retain the best of the past while seeking a new and modern art.  In this sense, painting is a conservative art, one that often strives to retain old values while extending them into newer forms.”

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