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Picasso and American Art

In the first decades of the 20th century, American artists were increasingly aware of the radical artistic innovations of European modernism.

 While many of the new movements were influential, among them Fauvism, Futurism, and, after World War I, Dadaism and Surrealism, Pablo Picasso's Cubist experiments with breaking up forms into planes were to have the most lasting impact. During this period a number of American artists, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, and Max Weber, traveled to Paris to learn more about modern art.  Many gravitated to the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein and moved in the same circles as Picasso and his fellow Cubist Georges Braque. Likewise, Mexican artist Diego Rivera worked in Paris in the 1910s and adopted elements of Cubism in portraiture, landscape, and still life.

Picasso’s art was also on display in New York City and other venues around United States. Artists who remained stateside, among them Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe, could see his work at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, where Picasso’s works were shown in 1911 and 1914/15. But most Americans first experienced Picasso’s radical compositions at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, which debuted in New York in 1913. A smaller version of the exhibition also traveled to Boston and Chicago, where it was installed at the Art Institute. Although newspapers fanned the flames of controversy, after 1913 the importance of Cubism, and indeed modernism more broadly, could no longer denied.

Despite their fascination with Cubist techniques, American modernists were drawn to native subject matter. They rejected the academic conventions of the American art world but did not renounce American culture. They viewed the relatively young United States as the quintessential modern society; indeed, subjects such as skyscrapers, factories, and jazz seemed ideal for modernist art. Charles Demuth expressed the feelings of many American artists when he returned home from Paris in 1921 and wrote to Stieglitz, “It was all very wonderful, but I must work, here. . . . New York is something which Europe is not. . . . Together we will add to the American scene.”