Culture Club: Newfangled: Influences and Characteristics of the Modern Art Period

A look behind the scenes of the permanent collection of the Miller Art Museum


Curator of Exhibitions and Collections

The Miller Art Museum is home to the largest collection of artworks by Gerhard CF Miller and other beloved Door County artists. But, with a total of 1,515 artworks spanning the early 20th century to the present, it is surprising how broad and varied the museum’s collection actually is.  Recently, I curated a selection of 34 works from the collection that illustrate the modern art period, defining some of the characteristics and influences – an exciting exercise and one that offers perspective to the works we hold in public trust. 

The modern art period, spanning from the 18th to 20th centuries, was marked by the gargantuan effects of the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) and the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). This combination of revolutionary changes served as a catalyst, inciting artists to reject traditional values in search of innovation. Modernism looked to the future with newfangled individualism, imagining an idealized society with a belief in universal truths. 

It was also a period of monumental charges for social justice, including the abolition of slavery in the United States (1865) and the fight for women’s equality promoted by the Suffragettes (1890). The human condition and the plight of the individual activated grassroots social movements, instigating a turbulent era of social change.

As the Industrial Revolution raced forward, workers flocked to secure factory jobs creating booming urban populations. These fast-paced environments offered intersectional experiences and a wide variety of cross-cultural opportunities, which expanded one’s worldview, providing access to new ideas. Armed with new ideas, the modern artist was forward-thinking, intellectually independent and interested in experimentation. As industry boomed with invention, the modern artist boomed with autonomous creativity.

Artistic philosophies, such as formalism and abstraction, defined modern art. Formalism describes taking the position that form, color, line, composition and the physical qualities of an artwork, such as brushstrokes, are more important than the artwork’s intended meaning or resemblance to the natural world. Formalism is a pivotal device that rejected naturalism, making line, form and color the subject, and employing surface texture, brushstroke and material qualities to deliver emotional impact. 

The principles of formalism were the ideal creative formula to fuel the search for abstraction. Composition became the focus of interest as life-like detail faded out. Abstraction approached formalism as primal, turning to the individual psyche for inspiration and eliminating the need for figurative depiction entirely.

In 1940, American artists introduced a matured form of abstraction in a major shift that placed New York City at the forefront of the art world. Known as the New York School, artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Klein, and Willem de Kooning introduced Abstract Expressionism with oversized canvases and dynamic gestures, making it one of the 20th century’s most significant American art movements.

Invented in 1839, photography was a rapidly advancing technology, with the initial fury of possibilities focused on photographs as tools of documentation but it soon impacted the visual arts. Photography possessed the capacity to produce an image with incredible accuracy to its subject, inspiring a renewed fascination with life-like imagery. With painters immersed in formalism, photography posed a threat to the relevancy of painting. In 1840, upon seeing a photograph for the first time, French painter Paul Delaroche proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” 

That may have seemed an overreaction, but it’s an indication of the anxiety that surrounded the emerging technology. The argument that painting was dead would continue to plague artists into the 20th century, only to become the battle cry of postmodernism, which insisted that, indeed, painting was dead!  

Postmodernism was a reaction against the values of modernism, usurping its dominance of the art world. The movement employs skepticism, irony and appropriation often challenging established political beliefs by using art for ethical inquiry. Important postmodern movements include Pop Art, Conceptual Art and the Young British Artists. These movements employed performance, installation and assemblage, and included video, found objects, appropriated imagery and even the body. In postmodernism, the concept behind an artwork is the most important component, and any approach to the presentation is appropriate if it serves the concept. If photography suggested that painting was dead, postmodernism asked, “What is art?”

Postmodernism continues today with a broader association known as Contemporary Art. But foreseeably, with new technologies on the horizon and our ever-changing world views, this too will eventually evolve into a new period of art.  

The Miller Art Museum continues to collect artwork to address gaps in the collection, particularly works by a wide spectrum of culturally significant and important artists who are currently underrepresented. And most importantly, to build on the existing strengths of the permanent collection, embracing new opportunities to bring enriching content to our community, and carry on the legacy of Miller Art Museum. 

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.