Assembling Art: The Machine and the American Avant-Garde

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Barbara Zabel
University Press of Mississippi ($45)

by Stacy Brix

In the early 20th century, America began to leave behind the romantic values of imagination, emotion, and interest in the past, and plunge forward into the age of the machine. While the country adopted a drive for objective reality and an increasingly controlled human environment, American art experienced a similar departure, espousing the visual qualities of the new industrial environment with its cold, rational geometry. A new visual language was necessary in order to communicate, express, and understand one's position within the overwhelmingly foreign technological milieu developing around them.

The flood of technological developments stirred a change in the American environment so significant that the nation was caught groping for a concrete conception of identity, an understanding of America's place in the world. The numberless factories found clinging to the nation's riverbanks were essential to what America had become—industry was feeding America's growth in population and its growth as a world power—but America's identity in respect to industry was persistently ambiguous. Americans once found their footing in myths of the unruly West, but the growing phenomena of urban growth captivated early 20th-century artists and the audiences who followed them. Artists of the Ashcan School, for example, gave glory to the cityscape, attending to the visual appeal of filthy alleys and the underbellies of bridges.

In Assembling Art, Barbara Zabel examines four avant-garde artists working in four genres to develop her evidence of this search for the new American identity: Man Ray, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, and Gerald Murphy. Art is never independent of cultural and scientific developments, though this is how it is often treated; yet Zabel sees it as a vehicle for understanding the growing, fluxing age, and illustrates how technology supported the avant-garde's primary impulse.

The author suggests that more technological elements ruminate in and through art of the 20th century than ever before acknowledged, demanding a deeper, more critical look at the Machine Age and the aesthetic constructions that erupted from it while complicating our view. Assembling Art re-engages the curiosity of its audience by confronting it with questions: How can a machine visually articulate one's sexual identity in an unprecedented way? Are visual constructions of machine-like compositions able to reinforce a male-dominated culture, and do these same artworks have the ability to release the female from the long-endured male grip? Zabel's approach is suggestive rather than conclusive, and thus truthfully illustrates the ambiguities and contradictions of the avant-garde.

The influence of the machine came to be evident not only in the themes artists chose but also in the process with which artists began to depict themes. Mixed media was becoming more accepted in the production of high art, as is especially exemplified in the reception of the work of the artists in discussion. To work in collage and assemblage was to choose a process much connected to the factory line; art was in its own way a machine, assembled.

Aesthetically, artworks began expressing the clean lines and hard edges specific to industrial-mechanical environments. Most of Gerald Murphy's work renders machines, whose function was often unidentifiable, with aesthetic values inspired by industry. Further, materials such as wires and gears came to be primary vehicles by which artists chose to describe, reference, and criticize the ideas, issues, and values of that time—as if to say that more traditional materials of paint and clay were no longer appropriate for the expressive needs of America's new machine-centered culture.

The role of technology and the machine became so entirely part of physical human experience that soon the body itself was conceived of as something mechanized. Zabel persuasively argues that humans understand themselves in terms of their environment. Once the machine came to be more centrally placed within the human environment, metaphors for people and human activities were derived increasingly from mechanical sources, leading to a conflation of the body and the machine. The body was understood as a system whose various minor components either work together or break down. And this machine was just one among many in the American machine—a single part of a greater system within which humans operate as gears and sprockets.

Zabel reminds us that American artworks of the Machine Age are as complex and enigmatic as the age from which they emerged, and that art serves us with not only truth and beauty, but more valuably with questions of our national, and often individual, identity.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004