The Machine and the American Avant-Garde
An examination of early modernism’s revolutionary alliance with the machine
As the machine age roared at full tilt in the early twentieth century, avant-garde artists saw opportunities to buck the past. In welcoming the new technologies, they created the art we now identify as modernist.
Assembling Art gives a vivid account of this American avant-garde revolution in the production of art. Challenged by unprecedented technological advancement, artists embraced collage, montage, and the striking juxtaposition of incongruent materials and ideas.
By appropriating disparate icons from visual and material culture-the skyscrapers of New York or the body of the black entertainer Josephine Baker or cigarette packaging-artists re-conceived and revitalized the relationship between art and life. There was no particular "school" of early American moderns. The artists' approaches were diverse, ironic, and individualistic. However, one phenomenon does seem to inform much of the work produced in this era: the pervasiveness and power of machine technology.
This book focuses on the automaton, still life, portraiture, and jazz to illuminate machine-age art. Case studies of four artists' work in a range of media exemplify these-Man Ray's rayographs, Stuart Davis's tobacco paintings, Alexander Calder's wire sculptures of Josephine Baker, and Gerald Murphy's avant-garde ballet Within the Quota. These show how the machine played a crucial role in the formation of American modernism and how the American avant-garde devised new identities to suit radically changed realities.
By interweaving biography and art history and by synthesizing a wide spectrum of approaches from cultural and gender studies, Assembling Art offers provocative insights into the ways this art registers tensions between genders and races, between elitist and popular cultures, and between transatlantic national cultures.
Barbara Zabel is a professor of art history at Connecticut College. Her work has appeared in such periodicals as Archives of American Art Journal, Smithsonian Studies in American Art, American Art, and Arts Magazine, as well as in the edited volumes Women in Dada and Modernism, Gender, and Culture and in the exhibition catalog Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York.