To celebrate the long-awaited release of American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago: From World War I to 1955, a scholarly catalogue showcasing the Art Institute’s expansive permanent collection of American art, the Department of Prints and Drawings has organized this companion exhibition. Approximately 140 prints, drawings, collages, and watercolors from the permanent collection offer the opportunity to ruminate on what constituted “modern” at various moments during the first half of the 20th century.
Ranging from Edward Hopper’s watercolors of streetwalkers, painted in 1906, to Willem de Kooning’s black enamel drip drawing of 1950, Modern in America showcases the wide variety of media and subject matter explored by American artists as they sought to respond to the compelling issues of their generations. Iconic images such as George Wesley Bellows’s lithograph A Stag at Sharkey’s and Georgia O’Keeffe’s rich pastel White Shell with Red—true touchstones of American art—stand in contrast to 30 rarely seen working drawings by Peter Blume for his famous painting The Rock, also in the Art Institute’s collection.
Working on paper often provided artists with an affordable and direct way of responding to and mirroring their experiences. Starkly powerful lithographs of the 1930s, together with Jacob Lawrence’s dynamic gouache paintings, demonstrate how works on paper could be both topical and intensely personal. Images of the modern city by Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, and Charles Sheeler offer public and private perspectives on the urban experience, while landscapes of rural America by Grant Wood and Walter Ellison suggest the tension between modern stylistic concerns and traditional subject matter.
Prints and drawings also reveal how American artists responded to their encounters with European Modernism. The wave of interest in formal abstraction in the wake of the Armory Show of 1913 was followed by the distillation of natural forms by artists such as Rockwell Kent, Arthur Dove, O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley. Modern in America also considers the influential contributions of European-born American artists such as Arshile Gorky, Yves Tanguy, and László Moholy-Nagy and of Mexican artists who worked extensively in the United States, including Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.