The American modernists are "American" because they chose to work in the United States, which was commonly called "America" before World War II. They might have started out as a different nationality—Max Weber was Russian, Oscar Bluemner was German—but they adopted America's land, society and culture as their own. The American modernists were "modernist" because they grappled with the issues of modernity central to understanding the first half of the 20th century, and presented their results in all creative media, from canvas and emulsion to the typewriter and the dance floor.

(Click here to see a roster of American modernists.)

Some modernists responded to modernity by celebrating the machine age, a preoccupation of Charles Sheeler, for instance, in his precisionist, industrial landscapes. Others championed the ridiculous, as did Dadaists like Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. Still others explored scientific approaches to color, form and perception with Synchromism. Ironically, many of the modernist painters best known today are those who defined themselves against the received idea of the modern, and might even be called anti-modern. The artists of the Stieglitz circle, such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove, attempted to provide a counterforce to modernity that would lift people out of the increasingly depraved life, as they saw it, of urbanization, industry and commercialization to a more "spiritual" understanding of life.

No one style or approach, therefore, rules American modernism. Abstraction and realism are equally characteristic. What distinguishes American modernism is the unifying theme of a conscious search for identity: What did it mean to be American? What did it mean to be modern? These questions begged asking in the period between the world wars, a time when Europe's cultural supremacy was taken for granted and—more to the point—America's label of provincialism could not be shaken off. The questions give the work and the times a vital urgency that comes across even today in the works of art. The American modernists are also noteworthy for the later art they influenced. They were the unheralded pioneers of post World War II American abstraction, which is still sometimes spoken of as if it had emerged without a past.

Primarily concerned with the visual arts in American modernism, the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists is also deeply interested in the links between the visual arts and other media, such as dance, music, literature and theater.

General References:

Wanda M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity 1915-1935. University of California Press, 1999.

Patricia Hills, Modern Art in the USA: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Century. Prentice Hall, 2000.

Abraham A. Davidson, Early American Modernist Painting, 1910-1935. Da Capo Press, 1994.

Milton W. Brown, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression. Princeton University Press, 1955.