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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Modern Look

The Barcelona Chair, 1929, Mies van der Rohe,
the quintessential "modern" look.
When we think of something as being "modern" looking, we tend to think in terms of its being simplistic in design, sleek, streamline, functional not given to excessive (or perhaps any decoration, having "style" without being "busy" or "pretty". We often think in terms of less being more, a tendency at least in the direction of abstraction, or "form follows function", but in any event a sort of cold, hard-edged refinement to the bare essentials. Now, having defined, to some extent, what we mean by "modern" looking, perhaps we begin to wonder just where these aesthetic qualities originated and how they became fixed in our national (indeed, international) design psyche.

Antigraceful, 1913, Umberto Boccioni,
a portrait of his mother--old modern.
One thing about them, they are not new. "Modern" design, like modern art is about as new as our grandparents (or in some cases, our great grandparents). It didn't begin in this country. During the first half of the 20th century, very few things that were truly "new" in art originated in this country. No, much of what we now consider "modern" originated in Italy, about 1910, with a group of antiestablishment artist who called themselves collectively Futurists. Among them were Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and Carlo Carra. They held their first exhibition in Paris in 1912. And while their paintings tended to have a "modernizing" effect upon art in Europe, in the U.S., Joseph Stella and Charles Demuth were the proselytizing disciples of the "modern" look in art and design. Though not actually Futurists, they derived much of their influence from this movement.

Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1913, Joseph Stella,
(Jackson Pollock was a year old at the time.)
Sailboats and Roofs, 1917,
Charles Demuth
Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island (above), painted in 1913, is a glorious, every-color-in-the-rainbow confetti confection bordering so closely on Abstract Expressionism as to make Jackson Pollock worry about being labeled a copyist. Charles Demuth's Sailboats and Roofs (left), painted in 1917, has a look of 1990s corporate art at a time when "corporate art" meant nothing more than an attractive logo. By 1939, when Stella painted his famous The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, the "modern" look had been set in stone and had acquired a monumental quality as well. It was sharp, pointed, soaring, smooth, shiny, linear, and geometric, waiting only for cubism to migrate to this country to add the rectilinear quality we also now associate with modern looking art and architecture. The problem with the "modern look", is that it became soo old there had to be another term invented to differentiate between modern then and modern now. Art historians have somehow settled on a mobile (but barely adequate) term, contemporary, a sort of test-of-time entrance portal through which all that is considered modern today must pass in order to survive.
The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme,
1939, Joseph Stella--forever modern.

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