The 20th Century American Artist

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On this "20th Century American Artist" page:

The Artist:

- in Paris;

- as a Revolutionary;

- as a Teacher and Guide;

- as an Expression of Himself;

- as Consumer;

- as Actor;

- as Shaper of His World;

- as Creator of Virtual Worlds.

"Forms", Patrick Henry Bruce

Over the course of the 20th century the rapid changes in the forms of artistic expression, especially in the United States, also completely changed what it means to be an artist.

This is not to say that there have been changes in the artist’s status before: in the Middle Ages he was a craftsman and no more; by the Renaissance he was the creator of unique works, forged by his individual talent, on which he set his signature. At the end of the 19th century he was a gifted demigod getting his divine inspiration from his Muse.

It's something special and different happened in the 20th century. You could say that it was when the artist finally gained a new kind of liberty, in terms of his materials and way of working, and in terms of his relationship to his public and art critics.

The 20th Century American Artist in Paris

Gallery owners and collectors took on a much more important role, as they went to visit artists where they worked in their research for works to acquire or sell; even the most rebellious and antisocial artists of the time were ready to get paid for the work. One of the most important of these collectors was the American Gertrude Stein, who gathered many important young artists around her.  In the early 20th century Paris was the center of the art world. A great many young artists left their countries to live there completely pennilessly; but it was all for the cause of being part of it all; and this included a very great many Americans.

Gertrude Stein

Many American artists in Paris at the time had a favorable exchange rate that meant they could enjoy life in City of Light at a level of luxury the other bohemians could not.  Freed of American conventions, and as expatriates under no social obligations in France, these artists (especially the women) turned to the pleasures of Parisian life offered with relish.

Although Americans kept pretty much to themselves, their sheer numbers did much to add to the reputation of the Parisian Bohemian living on little cash and loose sexual mores. Their high-spirited lifestyle and complete freedom did much to contribute vitality to 20th-century art.

The 20th Century American Artist as Revolutionary

American artist Man Ray with Salvador Dali in Paris, 1934

This was also a period when the avant-garde artist began to play a much more political role in those turbulent pre-world war times; the manifestoes they published, like their art, was looking to shake up the world and disturb.  The Italian Futurists, for example, rejected the past in their manifesto, and announced the new cult of modernity and speed, celebrating the machine, youth and violence, and indeed the evenings they were organized often ended with the police being called in.

Yet, as they brought revolution to art they also had the contagious enthusiasm of their youth. They created a sense of freedom, the desire to break the rules and forget about tradition, and they were a breath of fresh air that affected the 20th century American artists with their passion.

After World War I the avant-garde artist had changed his vision, looking inside, into his unconscious, rather than outside at the world he wanted to change.  This was the time of the Surrealists, and although they were provocative and wacky, they were not explosive like their predecessors were.

The 20th Century American Artist as Teacher and Guide

Another influence that the American artist of the 20th century experienced was that of the Bauhaus, the German art school responsible for some of the most interesting artistic exploration going on in the pre-war period.


Rather than getting personal inspiration from a bohemian or avant-garde lifestyle, here artistic exploration evolved from exchange and debate between artist-professors and artists-students:  it was all about study and analysis, with the artist now putting his knowledge in service of others.

Robert Rauschenberg

For the Nazis that Bauhaus was dangerous, because they were working for progress, and progress meant ideas escaping the regime’s control, and they closed the school. Nevertheless, its pioneering spirit went on to significantly influence artists and designers around the world, including the American artist of the 20th century.

On American shores came the rise of art institutions.  At the end of the 19th century, the Art Students League was founded in New York to offer quality art education at low cost and on a flexible schedule; it also participated in the founding of the American Fine Arts Society and Society of American Artists. 

Increasing numbers of women came to study there, and in the 20th century one of them, Wilhelmina Furlong and her husband, artist Thomas Furlong came to take on administrative positions; in these roles the avant-garde couple contributed to the Art Students League considerable impact throughout the American modernist period. Even after World War II, the school continued to have a formative influence on the American artist of the 20th century, with groundbreaking students such as Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg.

The 20th Century American Artist as an Expression of Himself

"Mark Rothko Portrait". Pilot V7 on Sketch Paper, 6x9 inches.  By Pocheco.

After World War II and up to the late 1950s the American artist of the 20th century sought to express his subjective experience. Abstract expressionists like the drip-painter Pollock painted as though he was putting his emotions directly on the canvas; his  approach was a physical,  sometimes almost violent series of movements.    The work of the painter Mark Rothko, on the other hand, is produced, slowly, mystically, and he has said that he watches to see if the viewer gets tears in his eyes to know if he is truly communicated his emotions.

Two extremely  different approaches, but in breaking with figurative art, here the American artist of the 20th century seeks to work in a different realm, one consisting of color and movement,  and where logic and rationality gives way to the expression of  what he lives. The artist, by nature, is already intent on himself; it could be said that here it approaches narcissism, made fascinating by the power with which he conveys it.

The 20th Century American Artist as Consumer

Andy Warhol with President Jimmy Carter, 1977,

                                  reception for inaugural portfolio artists.

In the 1960s the American artist of the 20th century turned to analyzing his siding, characterized by omnipresent consumer goods and advertising.  Some artists, most especially Andy Warhol, seemed to feel perfectly in their place in this world, showcasing Campbell's soup cans and other well-known products of the consumer society, which could go as far as images of the movie star Marilyn Monroe. Other artists collected these consumer goods after their having been used and thrown away, rummaging in garbage cans and collecting cigarette butts to show damaged goods in their artworks, “samples of reality”.

The 20th Century American Artist as Actor

In the 20th century the artist to turn from the canvas for other media to create his art on, and one of these was his own body. Until then, the only role his body played in the artistic process was that of holding the brush; now body art began to be explored, and in the gallery it was no longer a canvas but the artist himself who took place as a form of living art; it must also be said that in this case the artist often finds himself in court.  Especially in the 1970s the narcissism of the artist extended as well into masochism and obscenity, as in the case of Catherine Opie or Robert Mapplethorpe.

The 20th Century American Artist as
Shaper of His World

Keith Haring

The 20th century American artist also has turned from showing his work in a gallery space to exploring how he can shape the landscapes of his world.  The best-known of these land artists, as they are called, is Robert Smithson, the creator of the iconic piece of land art:  The Spiral Jetty.  In the 1970s in Utah Smithson reworked the rock, algae and earth to create a giant spiral of a jetty in the Great Salt Lake.  As the waters rise and fall it can be said that the work changes, more of less of it being exposed.

Towards the end of the 20th century the American artist had at his disposal a seemingly endless repertory of forms of expression.  He seemed a cross between a yuppy and the mystic, looking no longer to transgress, but rather to be independent of any school in particular.

For certain shapers of their world, however, transgression remained key.  People like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, graffiti artists, came from the streets and made their art in the streets, spray-painting tags and cartoon-like figurative art.  They seem to combine the revolutionary accusing the established order and the graphic artist creating advertising.

The 20th Century American Artist as Creator of Virtual Worlds

The 20th century American artist sought to go ever deeper into what daily life was about.  Turning from brush and canvas, he turned to everyday objects and the man in the street for media, even going so far as to bare and wound his own body in his search for new means of expression.

That new means of expression comes with the creation of a new dimension.  Video cameras and computers have made it possible to create an entire non-existing world around the immobile viewer. 

Only a hundred years before the artist urged Man to turn from the civilized world to seek refuge in Nature; by the end of the 20th century, he encouraged his public to escape into a world, natural or civilized, of purely electronic fabrication.

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