Art in the USA: Three Hundred Years of Innovation surveys the art of a nation struggling to define itself during the first centuries of its existence. Approximately 200 artworks—culled from a range of private and public collections in the United States and abroad—create a composite picture of the American experience: its myths, dreams, ordeals, and vulnerabilities. Throughout its history America has produced art that expresses pride in its innovative ideals and the challenges it faces in living up to them.
The exhibition, one of the most significant displays of American art ever exhibited abroad, is organized into six chronological sections that demonstrate how the art of each era both reflected and contributed to a complex narrative of the nation during times of discovery, growth, and experimentation.
I. Colonization & Rebellion (1700–1830)
European colonies were established on the fringes of Native American settlements, and the colonies themselves included settlers from Asia and Africa who each had their own art traditions. The arts of this period therefore represented the values of several different cultures. But as the political history of the United States eventually centered on the relationship of the colonies to Great Britain, so too did the art.
However, subtle variations were evident in American art from the beginning. The earliest portraits reflect the Puritan culture of New England and the strict moral code of the ideal citizen. By the 18th century, colonial values relaxed, and wealthy Americans sought portraits that displayed their luxurious garments and material possessions and highlighted their accomplishments as merchants and collectors. Starting in 1776, when the colonies proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, there was a renewed desire to distinguish American art from the European tradition. Portraits of civic leaders and public figures were intended to inspire neither reverence nor awe, but rather national pride and eager citizenship.
II. Expansion & Fragmentation(1830–1880)
The necessity of developing a national identity after the Revolutionary War (1775–83) encouraged the citizens of the newly formed country to discuss what it meant to be an American. By the 1820s, paintings that described contemporary life and landscapes offered American artists a vehicle to illustrate the belief that their citizens were exceptional by virtue of personal and economic freedoms.
Genre paintings celebrated the common person and the commonplace in a democratic milieu. These works amused or provoked nods of recognition from viewers who saw themselves or their neighbors reflected in the anecdotal scenes of daily life. As such, genre paintings aided in developing a national consciousness among the country’s disparate people. Landscape paintings, depicting the unspoiled wilderness and seemingly limitless expanse of a virgin continent, symbolized the nation’s potential for greatness. Manifest Destiny—the divinely sanctioned, westward spread of democracy and freedom—by mid-century legitimatized for most Americans the expansion across the continent.
III. Cosmopolitanism & Nationalism(1880–1915)
American art at the turn of the 20th century reflected the challenges facing a country taking its place on the world stage. The country’s new wealth allowed individual artists and collectors to make their mark abroad, thus displaying a truly cosmopolitan outlook. Concurrently, massive immigration to America dispelled the USA’s identity as a British colony and made cities such as New York more international than any other.
This was the era of the steamship, which brought America and its art within easy reach of the world community and the mix of global modernism. The popularity of Impressionism was spurred by the many American artists working in Paris. Other new technologies, particularly photography, also had a powerful effect on American artists, reflected in approaches to urban subjects. Painters of the Ash Can style sought a pulsating image of the city of commerce. Acutely aware of international modernist trends, these painters believed in their own uniquely American interpretation of modern art.
IV. Modernism & Regionalism (1915–1945)
In an era of political foment, the struggle of American artists to confront the complexities of their age contributed to one of the most diverse and contradictory periods of American art. The Great Depression of the 1930s ended the exuberant Jazz Age and threw cultural life into turmoil. Many artists, previously pursuing abstraction, shifted their attention from aesthetic concerns to proclamations aimed at political and social injustice (Social Realism), or imagery of regional America (Regionalism). These artists described a nation of plain folk and distinct geographical areas, and thereby demonstrated that artists could be independent of New York. New York artists, on the other hand, sought artistic innovation from the natural world as well as the geometry of architectural spaces conveyed in abstracted forms.
V. Prosperity & Disillusionment (1945–1980)
A deep ambivalence characterized post-World War II America. Despite a triumphant recovery from the economic depression of the 1930s, anxiety about the return of hard times persisted. The optimism created by postwar prosperity was tempered, however, by the fear of atomic war.
The development of Abstract Expressionism coincided with America’s emergence as an international superpower. Breaking away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter, these artists’ work commented on individual psyches. Resisting stylistic categorization, their work can be loosely identified by a highly abstracted mode with an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture or a reflective, cerebral focus on open fields of color.
The 1960s continued to witness dramatic changes in American art as both Pop Art and Minimalism shared the attentions of the art world. Pop artists took inspiration from advertising, the moving image, and consumer product packaging. Their images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and critique of popular culture. In contrast to the fascination with consumer society Pop artists espoused, a Minimalist strain emerged concurrently as painting was displaced in favor of sculpture, and concept was privileged over material, idea over sensory quality.
VI. Multiculturalism & Globalization (1980–present)
Since 1980, artists in the United States have engaged the legacies of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art, performance and video, while pushing these past iconoclasms to greater extremes and more sophisticated manifestations.
Despite charges of regression, 1980s painting, which enjoyed a resurgence of figuration, achieved commercial success as the country entered a period of apparent rapid economic growth. However, a troubled reality haunted the economic boom, which would crash by the end of the decade. In the face of bleak circumstances emerged a body of work that critically addressed issues raised by gender, racial, and economic difference.
The diverse practices of late 20thcentury art movements continue to inform the pluralism of contemporary art in the 21st century. In recent years, artists continue to vigorously question, as well as rewrite, the definition of art and its functions.
Exhibition curated by
Thomas Krens, Susan Davidson, Elizabeth Kennedy, and Nancy Mowll Mathews
Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah, 1892
Oil on canvas
112.7 x 97.5 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Bequest of Mrs. Bessie B. Croffut