Early Modern America: 1910s to 1950s

East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel
Georgia O'Keeffe, East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel, 1923, Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 1/8 in., Stephen B. Lawrence Fund, 1958.09


Early Modern America: 1910s to 1950s

Two distinct styles dominated American art in the first half of the 20th century: Modernist abstraction, which emphasized the dynamism of shape, line, color, and form; and American Scene Painting, which favored naturalistic depictions of people and places. Modern America: 1910s-1950s explores the art and artists associated with these unique styles.

Lauded as one of the most influential events in the history of American art, the 1913 Armory Show—also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art—toured New York, Chicago, and Boston, where it introduced thousands of American visitors to experimental styles of abstraction by leading European artists, including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Duchamp. Audiences were astonished to encounter Cubism, Fauvism, and other European styles that favored bold dynamic color and fractured geometric forms inspired by modern industry, science, and culture. For many artists, the Armory Show served as a catalyst to radically break from tradition, and its resounding impact can be seen in the works of Max Weber, John Marin, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, and others, who embraced abstraction as an expression of modern life in America.

A debate emerged at the time of the Armory Show over who and what would define American art in the 20th century—abstraction or realism. American Scene Painters like Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Isabel Bishop, and Moses Soyer rejected abstraction as a European trend and instead chose to depict everyday scenes of American life in a realistic style. Described as Urban Realism or Regionalism, their works documented cities and rural landscapes, and often addressed social, economic, and political issues. Against the backdrop of the Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the onset of World War II, American Scene Painting captured the hardships and joys of ordinary American communities and spaces.

Countless artists including Fairfield Porter, Milton Avery, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Beatrice Cuming merged elements of both styles, inflecting their representations of American life with a modernist sentiment that continues to capture our imagination and consider the question: what defines American art of the 20th century?