The Development of Abstraction in America

The Development of Abstraction in America
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  • 0:02 American Abstraction
  • 0:53 The Armory Show
  • 2:19 American Abstract Art
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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. 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)
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The idea is very much in line with European cubism - take an object and break it into geometric shapes, showing it from all angles simultaneously. But while European cubists did this with collages, Davis painted his image, creating the false illusion of a collage.

Also, Davis carefully arranged the subject, a pack of cigarettes, to reflect the upbeat, spontaneous rhythm of American urban life and even American jazz music. At the same time, it elevates the commercial art of packaging, which Davis saw as a symbol of industrial progress, to a higher level by using that as the subject of the piece. Altogether, this is an entirely American piece of abstract art.

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