What is the Modern Look?When we think of something as being "modern" looking, we tend to think in terms of its being simplistic in design, sleek, streamline, functional, not given to excessive (or perhaps any) decoration, having "style" without being "busy" or "pretty". We often think in terms of less being more, a tendency at least in the direction of abstraction, or "form follows function", but in any event a sort of cold, hard-edged refinement to the bare essentials. Now, having defined, to some extent, what we mean by "modern" looking, perhaps we begin to wonder just where these aesthetic qualities originated and how they became fixed in our national (indeed, international) design psyche.
One thing about them, they are not new. "Modern" design, like modern art is about as new as our grandparents are (or in some cases, our great grandparents). It didn't begin in this country. During the first half of the twentieth century, very few things that were truly "new" in art originated in this country. No, much of what we now consider "modern" originated in Italy, about 1910, with a group of antiestablishment artist who called themselves collectively Futurists. Among them were Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and Carlo Carra. They held their first exhibition in Paris in 1912. And while their paintings tended to have a "modernising" effect upon art in Europe, in this country, Joseph Stella and Charles Demuth were the proselytising disciples of the "modern" look in art and design. Though not actually Futurists, they derived much of their influence from this movement.
Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island, painted in 1913, is a glorious, every-colour-in-the-rainbow confetti confection bordering so closely on abstraction as to make Jackson Pollock worry about being labelled a copyist. Charles Demuth's Sailboats and Roofs, painted in 1918 has a look of 1990s corporate art at a time when "corporate art" meant nothing more than an attractive logo. By 1939, when Stella painted his famous The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an old Theme, the "modern" look had been set in stone and had acquired a monumental quality as well. It was sharp, pointed, soaring, smooth, shiny, linear, and geometric, waiting only for cubism to migrate to this country to add the rectilinear quality we also now associate with modern looking art and architecture. The problem with the "modern look", is that it's sooo old now that there had to be another term invented to differentiate between modern then and modern now. Art historians somehow settled on a mobile term, contemporary, a sort of test-of-time entrance portal through which all that is truly modern must pass in order to survive.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 July 1998