How have modern American artists and writers—such as Francis Picabia, Paul Strand,
Gerald Murphy, Charles Demuth, William Carlos Williams, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove,
Paul Rosenfeld, Charles Sheeler, and Joseph Cornell—explored the meaning of everyday
“things” in their work: watches, car horns, straight razors, flowers, fire trucks, an old rug,
and so on? Choose three works of art by different artists to compare as you make an
argument about the meanings of “things” to American modernists. The works you choose
should be sufficiently different to sustain your investigation.
Some questions to get you started:
What sorts of objects do these artists portray? How do they investigate, examine, describe,
and/or portray these objects? From what point of view are the objects pictured? What
features of the objects are stressed and in what ways? What techniques have artists used to
make everyday things familiar and/or strange? How does abstraction enter into the process
of rethinking an object, how it works, what it means? If one artist analyzes and deconstructs
(maybe Murphy), does another artist approach objects differently, by, say, putting them into
symbolic arrangements (maybe Cornell)? If nostalgia draws an artist to certain objects from
the past (Sheeler), are other artists motivated by a fascination with the explicitly new? Are
some artists primarily interested in objects that evoke a particular place? How do these
concerns and interests find form in these artists’ imagery and/or writing? How do their
works engage viewers in reconsidering the meaning of things in the period we’re studying?
You may select works of art that we have not addressed in class by any of the artists and
writers listed above. Whatever you choose, be sure not to simply rehash the arguments
made in lectures or in the course readings. Rather, use this information as your formulate
your own original ideas. (You cannot earn above a C- for merely restating the ideas of
others.) As always, your observations should be channeled through a clear thesis statement
and strong formal analysis as you make your case.
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