Everything you know is wrong. And the truth is perhaps more interesting.
The art historian William C. Agee released Modern Art in America, 1908-1968 via Phaidon Pressthis spring, and, to a not inconsiderable degree, it upends some long-held tenets, clichés, and canons of the art world.
To oversimplify Agee’s compelling contention, much of early 20th-century American art history was jettisoned either because it either didn’t make a good story for the press, a cohesive argument for historians, or a particularly flattering narrative for those artists who came afterward. There were artists whose work had to be written out of the story of a particular period (the late work of Stuart Davis, for instance) or minimized in importance in order to streamline the pedigree of American art (Edward Hopper). Add to this American culture’s long-held “inferiority complex,” he says, and the Eurocentric bias of Museum of Modern Art founder Alfred Barr and powerful art critic Clement Greenberg, and you have a flawed retelling of what, and who, actually mattered.
The world is full, of course, of academics basing their dissertations on the argument that Regional Brushstroke and Swatch McGee were the real unheralded superstars of modern art. But Agee is no green art history undergrad. A curator at MoMAand the Whitney, and a former director at the MFA Houston and professor at Hunter College for the last two decades, he’s presented some of the more notable museum shows of the last 40-odd years. Perhaps most importantly, in terms of impact, he’s a principal advisor of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, whose Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal BridgesMuseum of American Art is perhaps the most ambitious new museum project of the century to date.
So when he says that many artists, and even entire decades of American art, got short shrift—the 1920s in particular, he argues, is wrongly considered “a dark age”—perhaps it’s worth listening.
Georgia O'Keeffe's Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923
Agee writes: "As art in the United States gained international attention after 1945, earlier American art was cast off by critics and curators as a kind of dementeduncle, in favor of establishing a more elevated pedigree, a celebrated cast of exalted Europeans such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. No doubt these Europeans were crucial, but more was owed to American art prior to 1945 than anybody understood, or cared to admit." (emphasis ours)
Here, some of his more radical arguments:
1) It’s not, as it has often been suggested, that American artists were slow to “get” Impressionism (or, less so, Cubism), but rather that they had little use for it.
What American painters embraced, instead, decades earlier and more enthusiastically than many of their European counterparts, was the ascendance and importance of color.
Agee writes: "American artists mostly missed the point of the [Impressionist] movement, and did little with it, except to brighten their palette while retaining tight drawing and brushwork. It may be that Americans had less need for it: they already had their own light and openness, right there, in the grandeur of the continent itself."
If anything, they were ahead of the game.
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911
2) The importance of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase II at the 1913 Armory Show has been overblown.
The Cubist work actually wasn’t the superstar of the 1913 Armory show, Agee contends—Duchamp's vertical image was just the easiest to reproduce (and to parody in cartoons) in publications.
Instead, the color, energy, and explosiveness of Vincent van Gogh’s olive trees and Starry Night had a massive impact, he argues; Stuart Davis, the youngest artist to exhibit, made an impression; Paul Cézanne, a massive influence on the artists who followed him, was also on display. And, strikingly, the technique of “sequential movement” that Duchamp used in his much-ballyhooed Nude was also employed, though not noticed or credited, in another work in the exhibition by a female American painter, Kathleen Cunningham.
While Agee doesn’t question Duchamp’s brilliance and massive historical importance, when it comes to the 1913 show, Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio arguably had greater, longer-lasting impact, influencing Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Davis, among others. It was “the first painting to depend entirely on color.”
3. Movements, Schmovements
Forget the charts of Art History 101. Agee doesn’t worship at the temple of hard-and-fast lines between the Ashcan School, Ab-Ex, Color Field, etc., arguing that many artists' careers bridge those eras and that an art history broken down by movements hauls in names who wouldn’t make it in otherwise.
He writes: "The reputations of too many secondary and tertiary artists have clung on for too long, clouding the waters. American—and all modern—art has had a difficult time determining just who its best artists are, preferring instead to affix artists to the numerous movements and the most recent spectacles. An important principle in this book is therefore to forget movements and concentrate on the artists, to look closely and carefully at their art."
Artists in the early part of the 20th century that Agee elevates and illustrates include John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, s cadre of influential Mexican muralists, and, as a teacher whose influence would reverberate for decades, Robert Henri.
John Sloan's modernist work The Wake of the Ferry II, 1907
4) To make their innovations more important, America's postwar artists had to argue, falsely, that nothing else had come before.
In his chapter on the 1940s, Agee argues that self-aggrandizing young artists sought to wipe out earlier history. And, indeed, he notes elsewhere that in 1970, Barnett Newman wrote that, “about 25 years ago, painting was dead… I had to start from scratch as if painting didn’t exist.”
But long before modern American art was supposedly invented in 1945, O'Keeffe was working in New Mexico, Arthur Dove in Long Island, and John Marin in Maine, he points out, but without a critical mass to applaud them. These artists “presaged any of the developments that came after them.”
5) We’re teaching modern art history wrong.
Agee writes: "We teach modern art as a series of radical innovations introduced by ever-younger artists, but we forget that the older artists keep on working, adding immeasurably to the passing decades, often doing their best art in their old age. Think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, and others; to this, in America, add Marin, Dove, Stuart Davis, Josef Albers, and Hans Hofmann, all of whose late works are nothing less than glorious."
New York Office by Edward Hopper, 1962
6) "Hopper was a far greater artist than we have given him credit for."
Hopper has been misunderstood “as a simple homespun realist… We have mostly seen him as a purveyor of alienation, one of the most overused and misconceived clichés in American art history.” Agee argues.
Some others who merit the scholar's effusive phrase: Dan Flavin, whose misnamed “Minimalism” was actually marked by the brilliant use of high color, and Frank Stella, “our greatest living artist.” Several women artists are lauded in the highest terms, including Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, and Janet Sobol, whose poured paintings, pre-dating Pollock’s and viewed by him at the Peggy Guggenheim gallery, were discounted during her lifetime because “she was an amateur and a woman.”
Janet Sobel's Milky Way, 1945, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
7) The watershed year of 1945 is a canard.
While many art texts have been dubbed “'Art Since 1945,' or some variation,” it’s a false distinction. While working in the U.S. a few years earlier, Piet Mondrian created arguably the first American color-field painting; Guggenheim opened her gallery Art of This Century in 1942; The New Yorker coined Abstract-Expressionism in 1946.
If anything, the 1950s mattered more, Agee argues, as a golden era of broader American culture, and “1957 brought a shift of borders and clearer forms that was to define the look of the 1960s.” And by 1964, with Race Riot, "Andy Warhol establishes himself as the most relentless of social realist and social protest artists the country has produced."
Andy Warhol's Race Riot, 1964
Agee concludes one section in his book with the note: “This book is a history—one of the many possible histories that could be written.” But it may well influence the ones that follow.
"The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg (1839). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In recent study published in the "Creativity Research Journal," a team led by Dr. Roberto Goya-Maldonado over in Göttingen, Germany hoped to crack a mystery that’s long plagued cultural producers. Since our cave dwelling ancestors adorned the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux, painters, writers, sculptors, et al. have wondered: Why don’t artists make any money (or, in our cavewoman’s case, a hard-earned haunch of primordial elk)? According to Dr. Maldonado’s findings, the answer is quite simple. It turns out, creatives just don’t like the stuff! Who knew?
This remarkable conclusion was reached after monitoring and comparing fMRI scans of 24 participants, half of whom were artists and the other, self-identified “non-creatives” including a dentist, an engineer, and an insurance salesman. Participants would each don a set of goggles which showed a series of squares in different colors. Upon seeing a green square, they could select it with a button and receive 30 euros. They were also asked to select other colors, but those did not include any financial reward.
What the fMRI scans revealed was that when artists selected the little green money squares, the part of their brains responsible for reward systems (the ventral striatum) was significantly less activated than those of their non-creative counterparts. The study also found that the artists did get a dopamine rush when they were asked to reject the green squares. As an Artnet article on the study put it, “artists get less worked up about receiving money and more worked up when they know they can’t have it.”
While it’s easy to fall into the poetic romanticism of this study, it is also patently irritating to try to rationalize the trope of the starving artist with a not-very-thorough scientific study (12 artists is not a large sample by any standards). Essentially, what Dr. Maldonado’s research implies is that artists are physiologically prone to reject money, thereby putting the fault of poverty on artists themselves. What it ignores are all of the socio-cultural factors that have led to the starving artist stereotype—like, maybe artists are underpaid because society has refused to compensate the vast majority of them fairly. Maybe they’re caught in a feedback loop where the cultural expectation of the starving artist has conditioned many creatives to devalue money.
Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the Creative Independent gathered information from over 1,000 artists on the state of their finances. Among their findings, it discovered that the average median income for artists was between $20-30k per year with nearly 60% of respondents reportedly making less than $30k annually. To put it in perspective, that’s about $10k less than the national average. Additionally, the survey also found that both women and minority artists made an additional $10k less, typically falling within the $10-20k bracket. But is this because artists just don’t want to be making more? That they’re actually mentally incapable of wanting money? Does that mean women and minorities are even more physiologically apathetic when it comes to finances?
“We have bought into the myth of the Starving Artist, thinking of artists as unfortunate Bohemians who struggle at the lowest end of society” writes Jeff Goins, best-selling author of the book “Real Artists Don’t Starve.” “This myth is hurting creative work everywhere.” Maybe it’s time for “non-creatives” to stop perpetuating the stereotype of the starving artist. Maybe we ought to start valuing our cultural producers on the same terms with which we value their work. Maybe the Van Goghs and Nina Hamnetts throughout history needn't have starved had we looked on at artists with a little less scorn and had been a little less lazy about our expectations of what artists are truly worth.
Over the last decade, the contemporary artist-in-residence has become as much a fixture of Silicon Valley tech headquarters as foosball tables and on-tap kombucha. Since 2012, Facebook’s FB AIR has invitedmore than 200 artiststo create works on-site for its global offices, andLACMA’s Art + Technology Lab awards up to $50,000 for artists to realize ambitious projects with help from tech giants like Google and SpaceX. These programs create a neat symbiosis between artist and corporation: Artists get their hands on otherwise unattainable resources (with expert help to boot), while tech companies signal their commitment to creativity and innovation.
Despite corporate tech’s fixation on all things new and forward-looking, the artist-in-residence is actually a throwback. In the 1960s, companies—mostly industrial ones such as IBM, Bell Labs, and Hewlett-Packard—invited artists to spend months (and sometimes years) in their research centers, experimenting and collaborating on original artworks. And LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab is really a 2.0 version of a curatorial project that ran from 1967 to 1971, in which Maurice Tuchman, one of museum’s curators, paired artists with corporate hosts, culminating in the exhibition of 76 original works produced during those months-long embeds.
While maybe lesser-known to Silicon Valley coders, these early projects have enjoyed cult status among many art enthusiasts, who are drawn to the improbable alliances and explosive conflicts that ensued when nonconformist artists first encountered straight-laced corporate environments. In the 50 years since those early experiments, tech corporations have so seamlessly constructed a culture of innovation that the artist-in-residence is now an uncontroversial—if not expected—feature of the landscape.
If a contemporary artist at Facebook sounds asde rigeuras a beanbag lounge, we owe due credit to the original corporate residency—and the management science behind it—for clearing the ground. The first artist pairings emerged amid transforming corporate attitudes that made “creativity” a new core value in management theory. In the 1950s and ’60s, a new and urgent question gripped managers: How could they encourage employees to deliver groundbreaking ideas?
The pressure to invent was ratcheting up at the outset of the Computer Age, when executive boards poured unprecedented cash into research and development, while the ongoing Space Race intensified demand for military-industrial breakthroughs. Managers doggedly pursued a reliable formula for creative success, and in the process, they plotted the course for much of present-day tech culture and its obsession with idiosyncratic, innovative workplaces—exemplified by the artist-in-residence.
This 1960s corporate enthusiasm for hosting artists stems in part from the simplistic hiring ethos of the research lab: Pack the roster with brilliant and creative people, and lucrative patents will follow. (Boiled down: more geniuses, more money.) The prevailing psychological theories of the time bolstered this one-to-one approach by declaring creativity to be an inherent, measurable capacity like IQ. The collective focus on individual talent made it easy for management scientists to assume that great inventions stemmed from one person’s outstanding mind.
And who better exemplified this idea of creativity than artists? Consummate symbols of visionary exceptionalism, artists began popping up throughout management literature. Management experts began name-dropping figures like
as aspirational figures for research scientists in corporate labs. Corporate managers, therefore, were on the lookout to bring in the next Picasso to mill around their labs.
There was only one problem: These influential theories about creativity got it all wrong. Creativity is actually a subjective quality, whose definition changes across cultures and time periods. As such, it’s not inherent, stable, or measurable. It’s not a purely individual quality, either: Since the 1980s, psychologists have come to see innovation as a collaborative process with many participants. A well-balanced team with healthy dynamics yields better results than a superstar lineup that refuses to play nice. Revisiting a few 1960s artist residencies supports the present-day outlook: The success of an artist-corporate pairing tended to hinge on the artist’s rapport with engineers inside the corporate culture.
Computer art made up of different signs by Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon at Bell Labs, 1968.
’s 1969 residency at Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) illustrates, in colorful language, the fallacy of management’s more-is-better attitude toward creative individuals. Kitaj worked for three months out of a Burbank jet production facility as part of the firm’s Art + Technology program. From the outset, Kitaj rankled employees with his hostility toward the “organizational red tape” that he felt hampered his process. He didn’t fare better with executives, who balked at his ever-expanding sculpture installation and the production costs it entailed. Eventually, his hosts relented, saying: “Let’s give him what he wants and get him out.” Kitaj, for his part, called one Lockheed executive a “fucking fink.”
Kitaj grated against Lockheed’s buttoned-up culture, an attitude encapsulated in an article announcing the residency in an internal employee circular: Kitaj is photographed cross-armed in a branded blazer, declaring: “I don’t like the smell of art for art’s sake. I would like it to do research. I would like it to get a job. I would like it to do more useful tasks than it’s been doing.” Kitaj’s words were taken out of context from an interview conducted years earlier; Lockheed’s choice of pull quotes reflected the corporation’s perspectives on art more than the artist’s. This instrumental attitude is partly to blame for the relationship going south.
In sharp contrast to Lockheed, no research lab was better suited to artists than Bell Labs, and none had more prolific outcomes. Unlike the one-off arranged marriages of Art + Technology, Bell engineers personally invited musicians and artists to tinker with computer-generated compositions as early as 1961. These encounters flourished organically through the social networks of engineer-cum-musicians like James Tenney. By day, Tenney worked as a technician at Bell; by night, he appeared regularly at “
, worked with Bell engineer A. Michael Noll to produceConfused Rain, a landmark computer-generated video that Paik called a “protest against the lack of common sense in a computer.” A year earlier, artist
, to generate the “Poemfields” series, a canonical work of early experimental cinema. Bell’s open-minded culture also welcomed some of the only female artists to receive corporate residences, including
and Laurie Spiegel. (Art + Technology did not accept any women into its program in its four-year history.)
Bell Labs gelled with artist residences because of its exceptional work climate, still revered as the gold standard of corporate research. Since the early 20th century, Bell managers implemented creativity-enhancing techniques far ahead of the curve, including an open-plan cafeteria meant to spark unexpected conversations between members of different teams. The company also promoted expert engineers—not outside executives—to management, fostering trust and camaraderie between a boss and his team. The corporation’s monopoly on telecommunications translated into generous budgeting for exploratory, far-out projects with no concrete profit motive in sight, an arrangement that gave engineers enough slack to allow artists time on Bell’s mainframes.
Even when their technologicalraison d’êtredidn’t pan out, some corporate residencies still succeeded on the basis of their productive artist-engineer dynamics. One instance is
’s 1968 residency at Singer, the sewing-machine company that had recently expanded its research arm following its acquisition of Link aerospace company. Bochner was invited through Experiments in Art and Technology, an artist-pairing organization co-founded by Bell Labs engineers. He had initially wanted to transfer a series of his drawings into digital images, entailing a prohibitive six-month coding haul for a task that today requires 30 seconds and a scanner.
Boxed in by these limitations, Bochner abandoned his various computer-related ambitions, and instead found inspiration in his open-ended discussions with engineers on the nature of objectivity, measurement, and trust. These twice-weekly roundtables at the research lab led to the ideation of one of Bochner’s important early works: the “Measurement Series,” in which the artist hashed number marks across door frames, windows, and potted plants in the Singer lab (later expanding into “Measurement Room” installations).
Singer’s on-staff photographer took pictures of Bochner’s arm and face next to these earlyad hocmeasurements, adding what Bochner called “another dimension to the ambiguity.” Bochner’s corporate environment resonates through these works, which combined the hyperrationality of computer programming with the craft of sewing, an activity organized around the measurement of fabrics, as well as the bodies they clothe.
Even though these original artist residencies were based on faulty ideas about creativity, artists made a deep cultural imprint in the early years of tech. As mentioned, artists like Picasso and
were held up as paragons of creativity, and management theorists actively encouraged parallels between these archetypal artists and the emerging culture of the computer scientist. The innovative engineer borrowed from art history’s high-modernist mythologies around brusque individualism and solitary genius, arguably setting a precedent for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
The trouble is, these grounding ideas can be problematic, even outright selfish and macho. The #MeToo movement has revealed how unacceptable behavior is often justified when it’s committed by “eccentric” founders who, like the canon of Western artists, are overwhelmingly white and male. For example, Uber’s unrestrained culture of sexual harassment emanated in part from the lax attitudes of ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, hailed until recently as a bad boy genius of Silicon Valley. In the culture of “move fast and break things,” a Mark Zuckerberg credo, reckless individualism can easily go awry. These ingrained cultural norms are not only exclusive, but also damaging to the bottom line—companies with diverse racial and gender representation have been shown tooutclass competitorswhose more homogenous teams can form echo chambers that dull creative problem-solving.
Of course, 1960s artist residences are not responsible for the toxic elements of Silicon Valley culture. Nor do today’s artists in corporations contribute to tech culture’s ills. But it’s worth remembering that the artist residency carries political and cultural significance, even if its existence is rarely acknowledged in corporate narratives. Early artist residencies, and the managers who welcomed them, point to deeper—if largely unexamined—connections between art and tech culture. The next time Facebook announces a new artist-in-residence, it’s worth remembering that artists aren’t just interlopers in tech culture—they’re part of its origin story.