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Explore the Exhibition

Modernism was more than a movement or a style—it was a feeling, an outlook, and, for some, a way of life. Artists grappled with what it meant to be Modern and what it was to be American. These selected works from the exhibition show the stylistic diversity and the beautiful chaos of innovation that made this period so dynamic.

Modern Life

Work, technology, the economy, architecture, world affairs, leisure activities—all were transformed in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists of the Modern movement looked at the changing world around them and tried to capture the newness of these experiences through both the style and the subjects of their work.

Rhythm, Light & Sound

“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way.”

—Georgia O’Keeffe

In the 1910s, some artists began to move away from using paint in traditional ways to capture what they saw. They also began experimenting with more avant-garde approaches to representing fleeting experiences. Instead of using color, line, and shape to recreate objects and places, they employed these tools to depict the sensations of movement, light, and sound. Their art became less literal and more abstract.

Close-Up on Still Life

One of the most traditional subjects in the history of art is the still life, a work of art that depicts everyday objects. Historically, still lifes were an exercise in accurate representation, sometimes infused with symbolism. Modernists pushed the boundaries of the still-life tradition in both subject matter and style. They tried to capture the essence of objects, showing them in a fresh light, inspiring viewers to look for the extraordinary in the commonplace.

A Modern Palette

“A painting is beautiful for its felicitous harmony of colors just as music is beautiful for its harmony of tunes. Nothing more or less should be sought.”

—Arthur B. Carles

Setting aside old rules about accurate representation in painting, some Modernists gravitated toward surprising juxtapositions of color. They replaced colors found in the natural world with ones that were meant to reveal feeling, emotions, and a new sensibility about what was possible in art. The most influential of these pioneers in the Philadelphia area was Arthur B. Carles, for whom subject matter was secondary to color.

Nature Abstracted

“The inherent magic in the appearance of the world about me, engrossed and amazed me.

—Marsden Hartley

It is easiest to point to “American-ness” in Modern painting in works by artists who focused on the landscapes of the United States. Particularly distinctive locations, such as the dramatic views of New Mexico that fascinated Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, served as the basis for a long-standing tradition of American landscape painting. Modernists tried to infuse their work with the spirit of these sites. They veered away from traditional representation to convey the essence and power of these places.

Urban Geometry

“Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these!”

—Marcel Duchamp

The building materials introduced by industrialization forged an entirely new world. Many Modernists found inspiration in the geometry of the skyscraper. Others were drawn to the industrial architecture of factories, grain silos, and oil refineries. These forms influenced artists working in a broad range of media: painters emphasized planes and angles, photographers and printmakers captured the energy of the city in black-and-white, and designers created furniture and objects to reflect the aesthetic of Modern offices and homes.

The Animated Figure

In traditional academic art training, the goal was to teach how to depict the figure accurately or in a convincing way. Once again, Modernists went beyond convention and invented new ways to explore a familiar subject. Recognizable features were flattened, multicolored, drawn into other forms, or merged into their surroundings. Artists influenced by Cubism began to show bodies and faces from multiple perspectives at one time. Even more abstract representations followed, by artists like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Koonig, and Jackson Pollock, who ultimately left the figure behind and ended up at the heart of Abstract Expressionist movement.