At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism

Oscar Bluemner (American, born Germany, 1867-1938), "Old Canal Port," 1914. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.114

At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism explores the myriad ways artists employed abstract styles to convey their experiences of modern life. Drawn from the major collection of this material held by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition brings together works produced between 1900 and 1930 by both well-known American modernists and their less familiar, but equally groundbreaking, peers.

Early modernists in the United States came of age during a period of great optimism about the country’s progress and innovation. Nowhere else were cities so illuminated, manufacturing processes so efficient, or new forms of communication and transportation so pervasive. The women’s suffrage movement and other progressive initiatives heralded cultural shifts by challenging existing social and economic norms. Against this backdrop, many American artists adopted the new and experimental over the traditional and fixed by rejecting realism in favor of art that gave precedence to emotional experience and harmonious design.

The Whitney Museum largely ignored the work of America’s early modernists at the start of its history; its loyalty was to the urban realists who formed the core of the Whitney Studio Club, out of which the Museum had grown. While the Museum acquired a handful of nonrepresentational works when it was founded in 1930 and more were added in subsequent decades, it was not until the mid-1970s that the Whitney began to vigorously acquire vanguard art made between 1900 and 1930. Even then, these acquisitions largely excluded work by women and artists of color. At the Dawn of a New Age provides an opportunity to address some of these omissions. The result is an exhibition that expands the understanding of early twentieth-century American modernism and the mood of optimism that informed it.

Yun Gee (American, born China, 1906-1963), Street Scene, 1926