hat the hell was modernism? Jerry Saltz’s resurfacing long essay tells the 130-year-old history of the era of modernism. Most art movements last for one – two generations, yet modernism defies all odds by holding the relevant movement spot since 

the late 1900s. Saltz presents an extensive history of the modernist movement from MoMA’s role in upholding the movement to the MANY artists and their critiques on each others’ art within the realm of modernism. Saltz describes modernism as,

“a sequence of revolutionary gestures, shocks, and succession stories that, we think, tell us something about radicalism and experimentation… the natural end point of all art history.”

Saltz explains the difference between the appreciation of the Met versus the MoMA, is that of the old versus new art. The Modernist described themselves as so separated from the traditional methods that a whole new museum had to be created just to house the movement. The Met holds the deeper appreciation of “old art, tradition, and ‘good technique,’” as the MoMA is “cool… denying subject matter and narrative altogether.” Saltz agrees with the MoMA on Paul Cézanne’s The Bather (c. 1885) as the start of the modernism. 

Saltz provides his audience with the notion of modernism and the foundation of the MoMA were in cahoots by recapping the whole museum’s foundation with its grand opening in 1929, nine days after the onset of the Great Depression. The MoMA found a monopoly of ‘new’ in a movement that was already 75 years old. Modernism created an obsession with the rule breaking avant-garde artist. Saltz provides the reader with a few hints as to the hidden side of the institution. With funding from the CIA during the Cold War “as a means to exalt and export a showcase of free expression” which is sometimes confused with free enterprise. Modernism was founded on a platform to become the ultimate, never-ending art movement. 

The Bather Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906) 1885. Oil on canvas, 50 x 38 1/8" (127 x 96.8 cm)

Saltz believes the monopoly modernism holds over all new art is contributed to modernism as a form of propaganda to depict the triumph of American greatness and wealth. By the art movement claiming all newness and the movements ability to hold importance keeps the movement alive today. All artists/creatives/humans desire to be new, hot, and different from the next. We are sold the jargon of individualism our whole lives, yet we are interconnected through vast amounts of history and influence. The height of 20th-century European culture still plagues our global society today. Change stems all the way back to when cavemen could paint over the previous cave drawings.

Saltz use of rhetoric, expansive understanding of art history, and an encyclopedic mind to produce an insightful, yet easy read. With the ease in which each artist’s name could be Google Searched in the next tab over, this essay is a mini art history lesson of the modernist movement. The essay is written in a witty and fun way with minimal use of elitist linguistics, yet Saltz’ advanced knowledge and understanding is obvious throughout. This essay opens doors to a deep understanding of the art world to the wider audience due to the way it is written. So much information provided in a smooth, flowing way so the reader is not discouraged in reading further. The essay also includes links to other readings surrounding the artists, movements, and historical events mentioned within modernism.

The audience is asked to ponder the end of modernism and recognize the wide ranging effects of the so called poached art. The drastic worldly events surrounding the modernist movement mirrors the current global climate our world finds itself today. The ongoing terror effecting the modern artist will continue to push artists to find the new, daring, and eye catching ways of creating. Modernism holds on to the age old concept of generations desiring to be better today than yesterday. Modernists desired to rid art of all narrative through the inability of the viewer to separate process and material, as seen in Pollock’s works. The assertion of inventing the concepts and techniques which the movement stole was unrecognized by the era’s artists, but has a new found recognition. 

“Realism = Abstraction. Abstraction = Realism.” - Kandinsky

The present moment is unable to break away from inspiration from the past. To create something new is knowing what is deemed old and consciously pondering what is better, different, and new. The motifs of subject matter that will never leave the practice of art were used in modernism. Nudes, landscapes, still-lifes, nature, architecture, and more nudes are seen in all of art history changing through the rendering in the artist’s depiction of the subject matter.

 As the world begins to open up will we be a society with more acceptance and understanding of how our present mirrors our past? Today the MoMA is taking initiative to present different types of art, from different backgrounds, in different mediums to represent the human experience from all points of view. The MoMA will present newer contemporary art with the modernist’s influence right beside it. This will allow museum goers to visualize how the past’s renderings, techniques, and narratives are influence for the present. 

“Obsession with shocking nanny is centuries old thinking… newness is as old as time”

The 130-year-old concerns of modernism, still ring true today. The revolution came out of “a time of rapid industrial change when white European males assumed they ruled the world,” but is this not the same society looming over the world today. Saltz ponders how the influx of new technologies, the globalized art world, and the breaking down of some barriers to entry will officially end modernism, or maybe not. The world of the artist “a wrestling match of competing egos” because that’s who we are as creators as humans.

Henri Matisse, Penwinkles/ Moroccan Garden (1912)
Chris Ofili, The Raising of Lazarus (2007)