We’ve all heard the tales, dripping in posthumously-applied glamour, of New York City in the 1920s. These stories are usually set in smoky speakeasies with women donning flapper dresses and short bobs, saxophones smoothly slithering along a bar full of bootlegged liquor and men in fedoras and suits. The artistic trends that blossomed from 1920s New York have inarguably influenced those of today. Here is a brief history of what happened during the decade of decadence in the sleepless and sinful siren that is New York City.
The Harlem Renaissance
Arguably the most significant movement to come out of the US during the 1920s was the Harlem Renaissance. With many African Americans moving from rural Southern states to cities in the North during this period (also known as The Great Migration), Harlem was the neighborhood of choice for those who elected New York City. Fusing the influx of African American culture and the ban put on alcohol, speakeasies slowly became synonymous with jazz music. This is not to say, however, that this made New York a place free of racial tensions. The Cotton Club, which came to be one of New York City’s most famous jazz clubs, hosted performers such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, though they did not allow African American guests.
Jazz may be the most famous offspring of the Harlem Renaissance, but the movement was an umbrella term for arts of all genres, including authors such as Langston Hughes and painters such as Aaron Douglas. Throughout the 20s, galleries and museums including the Brooklyn Museum, New York’s Gallery of Modern Art, and The Harmon Foundation featured Douglas’ work in exhibitions. Cubism influenced Douglas, as modern art had begun flooding the New York art scene after the Armory Show in 1913 to mixed reviews.
Modern Art in New York City’s 1920s
Although some galleries and artists were uncertain how to react to modern art, in 1926 the Brooklyn Museum featured an exhibit titled Paintings by Modern French and American Artists, which featured “The Large Glass” by Marcel Duchamp. After this exhibit, he broke the piece in transit, and had to reassemble it in the mid 1930s.
This show was assembled by Katherine Sophie Dreier, president of the Societé Anonyme and one of the greatest patrons and advocates of European Modern Art in the US during this time. Also an artist herself, she had two works in the monumental Armory show, and was heavily influenced by Kandinsky. The Societé Anonyme was an artist association created by Dreier and Duchamp to support the European avant-garde by putting together exhibitions, small publications, and lectures.
However the general American art world wasn’t quite ready for all of the European Modernism, and thus would adapt elements of the movement without taking some of the more outlandish aspects of it seriously (see also: DuChamp). One group of artists who did just that were the Precisionists, whose name they acquired in 1927 when they were dubbed as such by Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art.
Galleries and Museums
Although The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick Collection, and The Brooklyn Museum of Art already held a certain level of prestige, The Whitney Museum was yet to be founded. The Whitney Museum would not open until 1931, nonetheless the museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was already involved in the New York art world. During the 1920s, the Whitney Studio Club doubled as Vanderbilt Whitney’s art studio and a gallery where emerging artists could show their work, located on 8th street in Greenwich Village. When the Met rejected her offer to donate her collection of modern art, she founded the Whitney Museum years later.
Although the Whitney Museum did not yet exist, the first gallery to exhibit only American art did. The Macbeth Gallery opened in 1892, and was the first gallery to focus solely on American artists. It remained in existence until the 1950s.
Alfred Stieglitz had closed his famed 291 gallery by 1917, which had also been known as the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession and featured the works of modern artists from both Europe and the US. But in 1925, Stieglitz opened The Intimate Gallery, a small space, as the name implies, where he would show the works of artists including his wife Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Paul Strand. Both Stieglitz and Strand were important figures in the New York art scene during the 1920s. Unfortunately, The Intimate Gallery closed four years later, and Stieglitz moved on to other projects.
* * *
Here’s a map of some New York’s most significant art spaces, 1900-1930, via the informative “History of New York’s Gallery Districts” page maintained by NYC Art Spaces:
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.