Posts Tagged ‘Modernism’


I love color. It must submit to me. And I love art. I kneel before it, and it must become mine. Everything around me glows with passion. Every day reveals a new red flower, glowing, scarlet red. Everyone around me carries them. Some wear them quietly hidden in their hearts. And they are like poppies just opening, of which one can see only here and there a hint of red petal peeking out from the green bud.

–Paula Modersohn-Becker
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) is yet another artist that is unknown to most of us. I know she was not known to me and as I was going through the images of her paintings from her tragically short career, I feel selfishly saddened for the loss of what more she might have had in store for us.
Born in Germany, her actual artistic career lasted less than a decade but her work had great influence in the European art world of the early 20th century. Perhaps a leading edge of the Modernist movement to come, she worked only in tempera with a limited palette of colors and worked with simplified forms, sometimes scratching the painted surface to create her distinct textures.
She died at the age of 31 from a post partum embolism.
I love her quote at the top, how we all carry colorful red flowers with us. Some of us hide our flowers and others wear them for all to see. The artist’s chore – or gift- is to discover and express that red flower.
Take a look below at some of the paintings from Paula Modersohn-Becker.

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Busy morning here in the studio but I wanted to replay a post from over eight years ago about a painter whose work always dazzles me, Joseph Stella. I’ve added a few images from the original post as well as a video that shows the wider range of his work over his lifespan. Just plain great work…

When I see the paintings of Joseph Stella, particularly his modernist work, I am immediately engaged. They seem dense and complex, almost manic in their compositional content, yet the color and symmetry have an effect that I find calming.  I often wonder how Stella viewed this work, what he felt from it. Not in an artspeak sense. Not academic jargon. Just how it made him feel.

Stella (1877-1946) was an Italian immigrant to this country who has often been linked with several movements- modernism, futurism, and precisionism among them.  There is a contradiction in this in that everything I find about him points to someone with an outsider’s mentality, someone who never felt himself a part of any group  and with an “antipathy for authority” as it has been described, with which I strongly identify.  Joseph Stella Brooklyn Bridge

Maybe that’s what I see in the work.  I don’t know. I do know that I am drawn to the boldness and beauty of it. The strength of the lines. The depth of the colors. The sheer visceral bite of the  image that when taken in as a whole seems to engulf you. Gorgeous stuff. Work that makes me feel smaller, even tiny, for a moment yet inspires me to want to move my own work further ahead. To grow and expand.

Maybe that’s how I classify other’s work in my head- by how much they make me want to do better, by the way their work’s impact becomes an endpoint for me, a goal that I hope to achieve.

The work of Joseph Stella is definitely such an endpoint. Now I must work…


joseph stella old brooklyn bridge

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John Steuart Curry-- "Tragic Prelude" Mural depicting John Brown in Kansas

John Steuart Curry– “Tragic Prelude” Mural depicting John Brown in Kansas

One of my favorite genres of art is that of  American Regionalism.  You can lump painters like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton  and  John Steuart Curry together as some of the  better known names in this group.  I am not particularly fond of the use of the word regionalist which seems to hint at some sort of narrow provincialism, a label that Eastern critics tried to pin on this Midwest-based movement of the 1930’s and 40’s.  But these painters and others who have been branded as Regionalists were not sentimental or naive.

In fact they espoused views that were often more aligned with progressive and socialist ideals.  Many of these artists were looking to make their work more accessible to the working class, something that they felt was lacking in the more elitist Modernist work of the time and simply used the landscape and people around them as the vehicle to convey these ideals.  This gave the work an inclusive populist quality that is especially appealing to me.  I like that their work is often simple to approach yet reveals so much more upon deeper inspection.

I have written about some of the more well known Regionalists such as Wood and Benton, as well as some of the lesser known names such as Alexander Hogue and Paul Sample but hope to shed some light in future posts on some of the more obscure names in this genre.

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paul strand ny 1916No matter what lens you use, no matter what speed the film, no matter how you develop it, no matter how you print it, you cannot say more than you can see.

–Paul Strand


I have featured the photography of Paul Strand here before, writing about his groundbreaking work in the early decades of the 20th century.  There is something about his work and his eye that is unmistakable, something that jumps from the surface.  When I saw this photo of a park in NY, here on the right, I knew immediately that it was Strand’s work.

I love this image, with the abstraction of the forms with the sidewalk forming a flowing diagonal through the picture plane.  The single figure in the lower third of the photo, cutting across the park in full stride,  becomes the focus for me, the soul of the picture.  He becomes the singular voice in a busy anonymous world.

Paul-Strand-The-Court-New-York-1924I think  the way in which he applies abstraction to the common forms in his work is wonderful and inspiring as an artist, something too many of us forget in our own work.  We become too concerned with simply capturing subject and not the emotion created in how that subject fits into its environment.  His best work speaks purely of emotion to me and he was able to find it everywhere.  As he said:  The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.

I think those are words to live by for any artist.

Paul Strand Abstraction Connecticut 1916


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166_1934_CCI find it hard to believe that I haven’t mentioned the work of Charles Sheeler here, outside of a mention of his collaboration with Paul Strand on the film Manhatta, a landmark American art film from 1921.  Sheeler (1883-1965)  is one of my favorite artists who as  a pioneer in photography and painting in the early decades of the 20th century is often called the father of Modernism.  Oddly enough, I am particularly drawn to his industrial imagery which replaces almost all evidence of things natural in completely man-made factoryscapes.  This  might seem to be the antithesis of my own work,  which often omits all evidence of human intervention in my landscapes.

Charles Sheeler River Rouge PlantSome of his most potent work came from an assignment where Henry Ford hired Sheeler to photograph his factories, wanting him to glorify them in an almost religious manner, as though they were cathedrals for the new age.  As Ford had said at the time, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.”  Sheeler was impressed with the factory complexes and felt that, indeed, they represented a modern form of religious expression.  His painted work from this time glorified the machine of industry in glowing forms and color.

Charles Sheeler Shaker BarnHe saw the factory as a continuation of the American idea of work as religion, one that was rooted in the sense of  reverence and importance of the barns and structures of the farms of the earlier pre-industrial age.  He   painted many scenes of farms and barns, abstracting the forms as he had with the factory scenes.

Charles Sheeler Classic LandscapeI don’t know that I completely agree with Sheeler on his idea of the factory as cathedral but I do have to admit to being awestruck in the presence of large factory structures.  I remember working in the old A&P factory, a huge building that was said to have the capability to produce enough product each day to feed everyone east of the Mississippi.  It no longer exists.  Some of the huge rooms in the building were amazing to stand in, as the machines hummed and throbbed while workers hustled about servicing their needs.  I particularly remember the tea room which was a huge ca cavernous space with row after row of steampunk  looking machines that bagged the tea then sewed it shut.  I cleaned these machines for several weeks and, standing in the grand space in silence after most of the workers had gone and the machines turned off, felt that feeling of awe.   I would sometime walk around from area to area, just taking it in.  I didn’t necessarily adore it in the manner of a religious zealot but there was no denying the  power in its magnitude and the power of the machine.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Sheeler.  Maybe its his use of form and color.  I don’t know.  I guess it doesn’t really matter.  I just like his work. Period.

Charles Sheeler Conversation Sky and Earth

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I was going to write about last week’s election here, about the runup to the election and the aftermath, particularly the awful spinning by Karl Rove and his ilk who try to justify their deceitful tactics and the ridiculous expense of these campaigns (from which they profit very nicely) with a continuance of their takers versus makers argument, one that drives me mad.  But I’m too fatigued by the whole thing.  So I set out to seek something that might catch my eye and, as I often do, headed over to Luminous Lint where I came across this striking image, a blaze of color and shape that filled the frame  like a Pop Art vision.  Indeed, in the thumbnail as it was shown I thought that it was a painting.

It wasn’t until I clicked on it to see the larger image that I realized that this was actually a person in costume.  Titled Junkanoo #1, it was an image taken by photographer Edward Yanowitz around  1979 in the Bahamas.  This image was actually used as a postage stamp for the Bahamas in 1979.  Junkanoos are street parades, much like a Mummers-type event,  that are common in the Bahamas and about which Yanowitz wrote when describing this image:

“It takes place once a year on two nights, Boxing day (26 Dec.) and New Years morning. It starts at 3 or 4 in the morning until about 8am. Groups called “gangs” compete against each other for the best costume designs and rhythm sounds, there are hundreds of people dancing around, playing on goat skin drums, beating cow bells together, whistles and various instruments. It’s a very powerful sound. When I photographed it during the seventies there were very few street lights so it was in complete darkness. I had to wait for the slides to come back just to see if I got anything, and if you discovered something in your work, you had to wait another year before you could utilize it the next time.”

I immediately thought Pop Art at first but the more I looked at this the more I realized that this really reminded me of some pieces by one of my favorite Modernist painters, Marsden Hartley.  His Portrait from around 1914 is shown here.  He did several of these colorful pieces with strong shapes and lines that are juxtaposed on dark backgrounds.  As I was searching for my own voice, these pieces were deeply influential.  The darkness underneath  both gave the color a boost and created a different subtext for how the viewer might take in these colors,  not simply as being bright and joyous.  This was one of the things I wanted so much in my own work.

Maybe that’s why this image of the Junkanoo parader stopped me in my tracks.  I don’t know for sure.  But it is definitely a great image.

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This is  a very famous photo by Edward Weston of a nautilus shell that is considered one of the jumping off points for the Modernist movement in art back in the first quarter of the 20th century and one of the great photos of all time, selling a few years back at auction for over a million dollars.  It’s a beautiful and simple image that transcends itself.  I came across it recently along with a mention as to how it came about  when  Weston, on a trip to California,  encountered a painter whose work, particularly in some close up pieces of shell, greatly stimulated him.  Her name was Henrietta Shore.

It was not a name I had encountered  and doing a quick Google search came across a number of striking images that reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe.   It turns out that she was a contemporary of O’Keeffe and  it was said that Shore’s work had eclipsed O’Keeffe’s when they were exhibited together, something which happened a few times.  Shore also had an incredible painting pedigree, training with the likes of William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and even John Singer Sargeant.  She had lived in London and New York before moving to California, settling in Carmel around 1930.  Once there, she didn’t show her work much outside of the Carmel/Monterey region  and never really gained the notoriety that came to O’Keeffe.  It was another one of those cases where I have come across amazing talents who have fallen off the wider map for some reason that remains a mystery to me.

There is great sensuality in her work, for instance the human-like twist and feel of her Cypress trees, that I found really appealing, something I try to work into my own paintings.  Looking at Weston’s body of work, I can see the similarity in how he portrayed many of his subjects, finding wonderful beauty in simple twists and curves.

I also liked that she stopped dating her paintings because she  didn’t want them categorized into time frames in her career because she viewed her work and her life as being part of a continuum  that transcended time.  Again, something I hope for in my own work.  How had Henrietta Shore escaped my notice for all these many years?

There’s not a lot of data out there about Shore, at least with a quick search.  She didn’t have a long list of exhibitions after the 30’s and those that she did have were in the Monterey area, so became a sort of regional painter which doesn’t take anything away from her great talent.  It only deprives the rest of us from finding her and finding something for ourselves in her work.  Thankfully, modern technology and the web allows us to stumble across such a wonderful painter long after she has faded from the national stage, even though her work will always live on in the continuum.  Just plain good stuff…


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I thought I had mentioned the work of photographer Paul Strand here before but can’t seem to locate it.   Strand lived from 1890 until 1976 and was part of the Modernist era of the early 2oth century, using his camera to capture the urban landscape’s abstracted forms in a way that no photographer had to that time.  The image shown here, Wall Street, is perhaps one of his most famous.

His portraiture is also quite striking.  Doing a Google image search, the page is immediately filled with multiple fairly closely cropped images of  faces in black and white.  They’re shot in a way that might make you think it would be difficult to discern any particular photographer’s eye but seeing them altogether shows clearly how he saw his subjects and show the continuity in his work.  Strand was a student of the great Lewis Hine and carried on Hine’s use of the camera as a tool for social reform.  His photos of the inhabitants of the city streets are powerful and gritty.

One of his projects was a film, Manhatta,  with the great Modernist painter/photographer Charles Sheeler, another of my favorites.  It is a really interesting view of the bustling, swelling city from 1921 taken from Strand’s and Sheeler’s unique perspectives.  Just great imagery.

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Many of us are familiar with the work of Stuart Davis (1892- 1964), the American Modernist whose paintings presaged the Pop Art of the 60’s.  They were bold and colorful abstracted collages that use imagery from the landscape of the popular culture at the time they were created, creating works that immediately evoke a time.  When I see them I a transported to the New York or Paris of the 40’s and 50’s, with Jazz and poetry blossoming in the aftermath of a devastating war that really changed our perceptions of the world.

But it is Davis’ early work that always intrigues, particularly a small group that was painted not to far from where I live.  There are three landscapes painted just over the state line  in rural Tioga, Pennsylvania in 1919 that are very different from the work for which Davis is best known.  They show a young artist still working in the style of those artists who inspired him, trying on their style and brushstrokes in an effort to find his own voice. 

You can see how  he had been affected by seeing the work of Van Gogh and Picasso for the first time at the legendary Armory Show in 1913, where his own work hung among the emerging giants of modern painting.  Davis was then a student of Robert Henri and painted in a style associated with the  NYC Ashcan school of painters , of which Henri was a leader.  These three pieces have thick. expressive stokes of paint and scream of Van Gogh and have few hints at where Davis’ road would eventually lead him.

The pieces are very accomplished and have a certain charm but it is obvious that they are still derivative and that Davis is still in the midst of his evolution from talented mimic to an original voice.  To me, they are an interesting insight to how we synthesize our broad spectrum of  influences into something truly original.  I would be hard-pressed to say that the man who painted these pieces would eventually become a leading light of abstract modernism but they somehow moved him along in his search for his own distinct voice.  It only goes to show that we should take in everything that excites us even if it seems out of our normal area of comfort.  It may open new and exciting worlds to us that we could never foresee.

Stuart Davis--Self Portrait 1919


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When I was first starting to paint, one of the painters that I admired when I first ran across his work was the Modernist painter of the early 20th century, Arthur Dove.  As I was beginning to form my own visual vocabulary, I found many similarities in how Dove and I represented certain elements in our paintings. This gave me a feeling that I may be following the right path and gave me a little more certainty and confidence in my own work.  I was also drawn by the duality in his work between the abstract and the representational.  There was always the sense that you were looking at something recognizable and familiar even when there was definite abstraction present.  This was something I have aspired for in my own work.

I didn’t know much about the man but was also pleased when I found that he was from the Finger Lakes region of NY  and had been educated just up the road at Cornell.  No big deal, obviously, but it gave me an insight into the influence of the local landscape in his work and his eye that I could compare to my own.

One of the factors in being self-taught for me, was in finding an artist that I could identify with , who seemed to have a similar feel for how things would translate in different media.  I am surprised, even today, how much of my early work resembles some Dove pieces that I have only seen recently for the first time.

I can’t say I loved all of Dove’s work.  I don’t know if anybody can say that about any other human if their work fully represents them.  But I do admire the spirit and feeling of his work and know my work is better for it.

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