In 1927, Paul Frankl wrote, “In my own creations for the modern American home, I have kept within the architectural spirit of our time,” citing the New York City skyline as his most powerful design source. Indeed, the architecture of Manhattan is reflected in every detail of Frankl’s Skyscraper Cabinet, including its simplicity, continuity of line, flat surfaces, sharp and clean moldings, quality of restraint, and overall feeling of power. Not even 18-inches deep, Frankl’s cabinet was designed to conserve space in small city apartments. See other examples of Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper-influenced designs Here and Here.
He Did What He Wanted (1927) was included in Yves Tanguy’s first solo show at the Galerie Surréaliste, Paris, in 1927. Before the exhibition opened, Tanguy and Surrealist leader André Breton invented titles for the paintings based on a 1922 book called Treaty of Metapsychics by Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize winner for medicine, which explored mysterious forms of cognition — a subject that resonated with the Surrealist interest in the unconscious and in dream states. The title of this work refers to a phenomenon Richet describes in which hypnotized subjects refuse to obey external commands. In early works, such as this one, Tanguy defined his signature style: a vaguely geological, otherworldly terrain strewn with symbols and enigmatic creatures. His biomorphic forms, rendered with a painterly treatment of surface that approaches abstraction, had a profound impact on postwar painters such as Matta and Arshile Gorky.
Influenced by the Cubist language of flat, overlapping planes and wedges, Stuart Davis (1892 – 1964) used geometric shapes in related colors to create this still life, Percolator (1927). Here, he deconstructs the cylindrical forms of a mass-produced, percolator coffeepot and renders the everyday object both abstract and undefinable. By choosing an industrially produced consumer product as his subject, Davis put a new spin on the spatial innovations of the previous decade’s European avant-garde art movements.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Kansas-born Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979) was the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of the arts in the 1920s and 1930s in New York’s predominantly African American neighborhood. Rendered in Douglas’s flat silhouetted style and with lavender and yellow-gold hues, this work, Let My People Go (1935-39), depicts the Old Testament story about God’s order to Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt.
In the 1920s, Charles Demuth (1883 – 1935) painted a remarkable series of “Poster Portraits” depicting friends and fellow artists. Rather than capturing a physical likeness, these works conveyed the subject’s character through arrangements of commonplace objects rendered in the crisp style of advertisements. While Demuth did not include a self-portrait in the series, My Egypt (1927), produced during the same period, suggests a parallel effort to distill his personal and artistic concerns in symbolic terms. This depiction of a newly built grain elevator in the artist’s native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the apex of his quest to develop a dynamic geometric style that would herald America’s industrial prowess. By titling the painting My Egypt, Demuth equates the grain elevator with the ancient pyramids, but he also invites a more poignant, intimate reading. When he made this work, Demuth was confined by debilitating illness to his home in Lancaster. Calling the image his Egypt links his hometown to the Biblical narrative of Egypt as a site of involuntary bondage.
Photographed in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.