Ruth Orkin in group show at The National Gallery of Art

Photo copyright Ruth Orkin

THE CITY – opened February 20, 2020
American Art, 1900–1950: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Towering skyscrapers, massive steel bridges, and the hubbub of city streets captivated artists working in the first half of the twentieth century. Roaming the rapidly changing urban environment, they explored ways to convey the awe-inspiring scale and speed of the modern American city. For photographers, technological advances such as hand-held cameras and faster film and shutter speeds enabled new visual practices, from off-kilter, oblique views and bird’s and worm’s eye vantage points to the blurred effects of motion. Printmakers likewise experimented with cropped compositions and varying proportions to underscore verticality or broad expanse.

Drawn to the social strata of the metropolis, artists portrayed a wide variety of city-dwellers going about their daily lives. The dynamic geometry of the skyline and vitality of the city offered endless sources of inspiration, from the dramatically cast shadows of cavernous streets, the cadence of drying laundry suspended in rows, and the swirling forms of Coney Island’s amusement rides to the repeating curves of ornamental lampposts and the dazzling lights of the city at night.

During a period fueled by enormous urban growth and technological changes, riven by world wars, and rocked by new modes of thought, American artists explored many diverse means to express their changing experience and environment. Prints, drawings, and photographs were vital media through which artists pursued radical experiments in form, figuration, and abstraction. Reevaluating European traditions, they developed new ways of seeing the modern world around them.

Complementing the American modernist paintings and sculptures in the adjacent galleries, these rotating installations feature prints, drawings, and photographs by American artists working in the first half of the 20th century. By looking at pairs or groups of artists, or at broader themes such as abstract portraiture or the Machine Age, the installations spark conversations between established and lesser-known figures in American modernism and highlight the era’s full range and complexity.

Photo above:
Starlight Roof, Copyright 1948 Ruth Orkin

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