Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on March 7, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:

What Modern Looked Like

by Martha R. Severens


Modernism, like many words used to describe art movements, is hard to define. As much a state of mind as a style, in America Modernism was embraced by artists who were united in their desire to be nontraditional. In the exhibition, What Modern Looked Like, the Greenville County Museum of Art explores the diversity of artistic expression that characterized this dynamic period during the first half of the twentieth century.

Much of American Modernism was shaped by its relationship to Europe. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, numerous Americans went abroad to study art. Artists such as Alfred Maurer and Patrick Henry Bruce became virtual expatriates who lived in Paris for prolonged periods. They frequented Gertrude Stein's salons, where they met Picasso and Matisse. Others, like Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Burchfield, eschewed European influence and never went abroad.

Modernists were often inclined toward expressionism and abstraction. E. Ambrose Webster and Hugh Breckenridge employed brilliant and vibrant colors in their Fauve-influenced landscapes. Blanche Lazzell and Mary Tannahill favored elemental shapes and simplicity, while Josef Albers and Will Henry Stevens moved into non-objective abstraction.

In New York, American audiences were introduced to modernist European art through two chief conduits: the Armory Show and Alfred Stieglitz. At his Gallery 291, Stieglitz, who was himself a pioneer photographer, alternated exhibitions of drawings by Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin with work by emerging Americans such as Maurer, Max Weber, and Abraham Walkowitz. Through the periodical Camera Work, Stieglitz promoted modernist theory as early as 1912 when he published excerpts from Wassily Kandinsky's treatise On the Spiritual in Art. One artist who benefited greatly from his efforts was Georgia O'Keeffe whose work he discovered in 1916.

For six months in 1915 - 1916, O'Keeffe taught at Columbia College in South Carolina, where she began a new body of work in which she eliminated most color and recognizable imagery. She viewed Columbia as a cultural backwater, and the lack of artistic stimulation forced her to look to herself. In a letter to Stieglitz O'Keeffe described her situation: "Hibernating in South Carolina is an experience I would not advise anyone to miss -- The place is of so little consequence -- except for the outdoors -- that one has a chance to give one's mind, time and attention to anything one wishes."[1]

The result of O'Keeffe's cultural exile was a series of reductive works on paper, such as Greenville's Abstraction. In these primarily ink-and-charcoal drawings, one of the hallmarks of her style is already evident: a sinuous, curving, organic line. The South Carolina series was also pivotal in bringing O'Keeffe to the attention of Stieglitz. When he saw these drawings, his response was immediate and positive, and, without her permission, he placed ten on exhibition in his gallery.

At the 1913 New York Armory Show, 75,000 people saw for the first time European and American modern art under one roof. Approximately 1200 paintings and sculptures were exhibited, including work by the post-impressionists (Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh), and the leading modernists Matisse and Picasso. The painting that garnered the most attention in the press was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, a cubist composition that was described by one critic as equivalent to an explosion in a shingle factory.

Americans created most of the work in the Armory Show, and the Greenville County Museum of Art owns three paintings that were included in this landmark exhibition. Eugene Higgins' Weary reflects the socially conscious ethos of the Ash Can School with its somber palette and emphasis on the urban downtrodden. Patrick Henry Bruce's Still Life, one of four by him to be included in the Armory Show, reveals the influence of Cézanne's proto-Cubism and Matisse's Fauvism -- two modernist styles that Bruce saw in Paris, where he lived for over thirty years.

Three years later the Forum exhibition attempted to redress some of the criticism leveled at the Armory Show by focusing exclusively on work by Americans. Both Ben Benn's Figure and Henry McFee's Still Life were included in the Forum exhibition, which sought "to put before the American public in a large and complete manner the very best examples of the more modern American art; to stimulate interest in the really good native work of this movement;...to turn public attention for the moment from European art and concentrate it on the excellent work being done in America."[2] Ironically, much of the work in the exhibition demonstrated the influence of the European modernists, as exemplified by McFee's cubist fragmentation of space.

Another painter eager to engage Modernism was Hale Woodruff, who went to France in 1927 hoping, like other African Americans who preceded him, to study art in a less racist environment. Although enthralled with Paris, Woodruff found it expensive, and as a foreigner he could not find employment. He headed south and settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer, a small fishing village near Nice, and, after claiming to be North African, he was able to get work. Woodruff's Landscape near Vence discloses the potent influence of Cézanne with its blocky, textured brushstrokes that define the basic shapes of rocks and houses.

In this country, Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the far end of Cape Cod, is closely identified with the emergence of American Modernism. Because of its idyllic location, the fishing village became a favorite destination, and two highly regarded teachers, Charles W. Hawthorne and E. Ambrose Webster, established rival summer schools there, which attracted thousands of aspiring artists each year.

Many of Provincetown's full-time residents were hard working Portuguese fishermen and their families who became willing models for Hawthorne. Emulating the rich tonalities of such old masters as Titian and the simple poses of Frans Hals, Hawthorne powerfully evoked the personalities of his sitters. Webster, on the other hand, preferred eccentrically colored landscapes rendered impressionistically. Escaping winters on Cape Cod, Webster often visited such exotic locales as Jamaica and Bermuda, where light and shadow were dramatically intensified.

One of Hawthorne's celebrated students was Edwin Dickinson, who for many years eked out an existence as a year-round inhabitant of Provincetown. Dickinson looked upon painting as problem solving and experimentation and for him color was a subtle tool.

Numerous women, many from the South, gravitated to Provincetown, especially at the time of World War I. Painter and printmaker Blanche Lazzell, a West Virginia native, began to summer there in 1915 and returned annually for the next fifty years. Her arrival coincided with the invention of the "Provincetown Print," a single-block method of producing color wood block prints. Lazzell evolved as the most prolific of all the printmakers who worked there, ultimately producing 138 images during her lifetime. With its clearly defined color areas, the Museum's untitled painting not only reflects the white-line print aesthetic, but also the influence of the French painters Fernand Léger and Albert Gleizes with whom Lazzell studied in the mid-1920s. The painting exemplifies her philosophy: "Abstract art does not represent anything seen by the eye. It is made up of tones, and planes or shapes of color. These shapes must be so related as to give harmony and rhythm."[3]

Mary Harvey Tannahill, a native of North Carolina, spent summers in Provincetown for over twenty years, and shared with Lazzell a proclivity toward simplified and flattened compositions. But instead of leaning toward abstraction, Tannahill's work resembles American folk art, which at the time was generating a good deal of attention among collectors and museums. In Sisters her faux naif approach complements the innocence of the young girls and the animals.

Much of Modernism drove inexorably toward abstraction. In Europe, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian arrived at total non-objectivity about the same time, in 1912, but in different ways. The former was more expressive, using looser lines and shapes, while the latter was severely geometric with his grid-like compositions of primary colors. Similarly, Will Henry Stevens employed organic shapes and colors derived from nature, while Josef Albers worked with hard-edged squares and triangles, which allowed him to convey his theories about color. In 1944 an exhibition of Stevens's work was held at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, where Albers headed the art program. Toward the end of the exhibition Albers wrote Stevens: "I am impressed with your sensitive musicality for color and your ability to handle a multitude of forms and to combine them [in]to an organic whole."[4]

Albers sensed a kinship between Stevens' work and that of Kandinsky, his former colleague at the Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany. Perhaps Albers was unaware that Stevens was a musician and had admired the work of Kandinsky since the mid-1920s. Although Stevens never went to Europe, he made regular visits to New York throughout his life where he seems to have viewed paintings by Kandinsky that were owned by Solomon R. Guggenheim.

What Modern Looked Like not only showcases a wide array of individual styles, but the exhibition also presents a variety of media, from Max Weber's cubist charcoal drawing and a watercolor by Charles Burchfield, to a directly carved bust of a woman by José de Creeft. Subject matter ranges from figurative paintings by Maurer, Benn, and Dickinson and tabletop still lifes by Bruce and McFee to landscapes by Edward Middleton Manigault and Hugh Breckenridge. The exhibition is a testament to the richness and diversity of this vibrant period in American art.


1 O'Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz, 1 February 1916, as quoted in Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988), p. 150.

2 Forum Exhibition, p. 5.

3 Lazzell to her sister, from Provincetown, Massachusetts, 15 April 1927. Blanche Lazzell Papers, Archives of American Art, roll 2990.

4 Albers to Stevens, 16 February 1944. The McDowell Collection, Asheville, N.C., as quoted in Jessie Poesch and Thomas W. Styron, Will Henry Stevens (Greenville, S.C.: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1987), p. 53.


About the author

Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 7, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.

This article appeared in the September - October 2005 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition that was on view at the Greenville County Museum of Art in the fall of 2005.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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