Visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art: The American Century-Art and Culture 1900-2000. Part 1, 1900-1950



Synopsis by Wei Hsueh



The current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000 Part 1, 1900-1950 explores how American artists have portrayed the changing identity of this nation over the past 100 years. Presented in two consecutive parts, this comprehensive exhibition surveyed American cultural achievement –from painting, sculpture and photography, to dance, music and film– and offers opportunity to observe the dynamic role of art in 20th century America.

A brief video of the major cultural and historical events, on 20th century American Art and national identity plays continuously in the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Gallery on the first floor. This multimedia orientation led visitors on a dramatic journey through 100 years of cultural transformation and artistic innovation.

The exhibition begins on the fifth floor, titled America in the Age of Confidence 1900-1919. Nine themes are explored on this floor, including the mezzanine level. These nine themes include Immigration and Population, Urban Modernism, The City, Nostalgia and Spirituality, Arts and Crafts in America, Genteel America and Modern Life. The artists include Thomas Eakins, Tiffany Studio, Marsden Hartley, Lewis Hine, Langdon Coburn, Robert Henri.

The Jazz Age 1920-1929 is exhibited on the fourth floor. Themes such as Industry, The Streamlined City, The Jazz Age and the Consumer Culture and Nature and Abstraction are featured in this floor. The artists who are celebrated at this time are Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper and Charles Demuth.

On this floor, the period of 1930-1939 of American art is being investigated. America in Crisis 1930-1939 is the title of the investigation and it extends to part of third floor. The themes under investigation contain Social Protest, Depression America, Streamlined Design, Architecture and Geometry, Abstraction, Everyday Life, Idealized America and the Usable Past. The artists represented in this area included Dorothea Lange, Alexander Clader, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers, William H. Johnson, and Grant Wood.

Part of the third floor was dedicated to the period 1940-1945. Wartime America 1940-1945 embodies two themes- Wartime America and Celebrating America. The photograph of Robert Capa D-Day, Omaha Beach, Normandy France, June 6 1944 catches the significance of this area.

Postwar America 1945-1950 occupies the entire second floor. American Cinema, Utopian Geometry, Postwar Anxiety, The Emerging Avant-Garde, Myth and Subjectivity, and Action Painting and Chromatic Abstraction are the areas explored in this period of art. Artists such as Alfred Eisenstadt, Arthur Miller, Burgoyne Diller, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock belonged to this period.



Analysis by Dania Pettus



Part one of the American Century-Art and Culture 1900-2000 exhibit explores American artists from the turn of the century to the 1950s. The exhibit examines American cultural achievements, including painting, sculpture, photography, dance music and film.

Four floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art are divided into years, between five and nineteen years per floor. The fifth floor is the beginning of the exhibition. This floor is titled America in the Age of Confidence and covers the years 1900-1919. As I started to walk through the exhibit, I immediately noticed the mixture of media; the exhibit included every media from oils to photography to stained glass to bronzed sculpture to watercolor. For example, there was a drawing by John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Charles Hunter, as well as a tea service by Tiffany and Company and a photograph, Gerson Sisters, by Gertrude Kasebier.

At first I was disturbed by this eclectic mixture of media because my sense of order was disrupted. I thought that the paintings should be in one area and the photographs in another, like most museums are organized. As I wandered further through the fifth floor, I started to realize that I was looking at a part of the history of our country from 1900 to 1919. I was looking at the artists response to the immigration from Europe in Alfred Steiglitz’s The Steerage. I was looking at choreographers, such as Isadora Duncan’s, ideas of reform of the female dress and a move towards liberation in music and dance.

Time was very limited and I was only able to view two of the four floors. The fourth floor of the Museum offers examples of ‘Jazz Age America,’ 1920-1929, and ‘America in Crisis,’ 1930-1939. ‘Jazz Age America’ looks at the countries participation in World War I and the scare of Communism as well as the soaring stock market and an increase in consumerism. People were spending money and enjoying life in the fast lane. Magazine covers like McClure’s and Life showed the country’s new opulence. Gordon H. Coster’s image of the Chrysler Building, New York City, is an example of the boom in skyscrapers. Paul Strand, Paul Outerbridge and Ralph Steiner’s close-up photographs of machines furthered illustrated the move into the modern.

‘America in Crisis,’ 1930-1939, gives wonderful examples of a redefinition of America and a look at regionalism. Paul Cadmus’ paintings showed the down-to-earth, nitty gritty world of the every man. Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings and murals sought to remind Americans of their frontier past. I think I most enjoyed seeing Grant Wood’s paintings. These works, Fall Plowing, Dinner for Threshers, Daughters of the Revolution and of course, American Gothic, were perhaps the most powerful for me. I was reminded that art must make contact with the public for without the connection, it does not exist.

Floor 3 continued the theme ‘America in Crisis’ and brought us into World War II with ‘Wartime America,’ 1940-1945. The final floor, floor two looked at ‘Postwar America,’ 1945-1950.

The interplay of media, high and low, visual, musical and literary art was necessary to give a complete picture of this century’s contribution to American Art.