The American scene
Horse’s skull with pink rose 1931
Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Museum Associates/LACMA
In 1930, Georgia O’Keeffe returned from a summer trip to New Mexico with a barrel of horse and cow bones she had gathered in the desert, along with cloth flowers used to decorate Hispanic graves. Enraptured by the landscape and the spiritual aspects of Native American and Hispanic communities, O’Keeffe explored the symbolic aspects of her desert finds in her New York studio.
In Western art, the skull traditionally prompted meditation on life and death. The flower, a symbol of fragility and rejuvenation, accentuates this symbolism. The skull was also a powerful icon of the American West, suggestive of Native American totems and the harsh frontier environment. O’Keeffe later spoke of a grander ambition; with city folk talking of the Great American Novel, could her souvenirs of New Mexico deliver the Great American Painting?
No 22 1950
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Albert M Greenfield and Elizabeth M Greenfield Collection, 1974 © Jackson Pollock. ARS, Licensed by Viscopy
Jackson Pollock disputed the suggestion that there was a distinctive American art: 'The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.’
All the same, when Pollock identified the hallmarks of his time – ‘the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio’ – he spoke of inventions and threats strongly associated with America. The new painting technique he developed for this new era was suggestive of the confusion and anxiety of the atomic age.
Issues for discussion
Compare and contrast the art practices of O’Keeffe and Pollock. How does each reflect a sense of ‘Americanism’? Develop a research project using these paintings as a starting point and discuss how these artists have contributed to an America art style.
Georgia O’Keeffe began her technical training in 1905 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, under William Chase, at the Art Students League, New York. She found her time at the two schools unstimulating, and when she finished in 1908 worked briefly as a commercial illustrator before moving to Texas to teach art. In 1912 O’Keeffe’s drawing instructor introduced her to the work of artist and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, whose oriental approach to painting resonated with her. O’Keeffe returned to New York in 1914 to work at Columbia University with Dow. During her time as a teacher O’Keeffe had produced charcoal drawings of organic forms that caught the attention of prominent gallerist Alfred Steiglitz, who invited her to exhibit in his gallery, 291. With Steiglitz sponsoring her and offering the guarantee of exhibitions, O’Keeffe moved permanently to New York. The two became romantically involved and married in 1924. Steiglitz was actively involved in O’Keeffe’s career, using his influence to instigate the exhibition of her work in numerous avant-garde galleries in New York. In 1924 O’Keeffe painted the first of her iconic flower paintings; the closecropped composition was likened to photographic framing to which she was exposed through her husband’s art practice. By the late 1920s O’Keeffe was enjoying critical and financial success and in 1927 the Brooklyn Museum, New York held her first solo exhibition. From 1929 onwards O’Keeffe travelled frequently to New Mexico; its desert was a common subject in her paintings in this period and she eventually relocated in 1949. Retrospectives were organised at the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Modern Art, New York and a major retrospective was arranged at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1970.
The youngest of five brothers, Jackson Pollock spent a great deal of his youth moving between California and Arizona with his family. The family finally settled in Los Angeles and Pollock was enrolled in the Manual Arts High School where he studied art. At 18 he joined his brother Charles in New York where he trained at the Art Students League. The death of Pollock’s father in 1933 impacted the artist greatly; he began drinking heavily and alcoholism would plague him his entire life. In 1935 Pollock was employed as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project where he worked until 1943. In 1938–39 Pollock began experimenting with symbolism after viewing the Pablo Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1943 Peggy Guggenheim exhibited Pollock’s first solo show at her New York gallery, Art of This Century. In 1945 Pollock married painter Lee Krasner and with financial support from Guggenheim the couple purchased a farmhouse in East Hampton, Long Island where they lived and worked. During this period Pollock began producing his ‘drip paintings’, large-scale works with paint poured and dripped over the canvas from a height, which led the way for abstract expressionism and brought the artist fame and success. Critic Clement Greenberg declared Pollock America’s greatest living painter, recognition that was echoed by the larger art community, and in 1948 Pollock represented the nation at the Venice Biennale. In 1949 Pollock sold out his show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. The artist’s already excessive drinking escalated, and in 1956 he died in a car accident.
View on the Los Angeles Museum of Art website
View on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website
After World War I, the global economic and political power of the US prompted both exuberant and reflective responses among artists. Some celebrated modern technology in a ‘machine aesthetic’ featuring precise lines and clean geometry.
Many explored what was broadly termed the American scene – the landscapes, communities and traditions of the regions. Just how Americanness might be expressed in art was hotly debated. Was it a particular subject matter or symbolism, rooted in regional life? Was it a particular style, emerging from folk art, or the factory, or from genre and narrative?
However diverse the responses, what emerged was a consistent tendency to challenge national narratives. Artists questioned American history, spoke of inequity rather than unity, and suggested that alienation and fear now shaped American consciousness.