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Cover thumbnail for Modern Icon: The Machine as Subject in American Art Modern Icon: The Machine as Subject in American Art

"We must look to the artist brain, of all brains, to grasp the significance to society of this thing we call the Machine…" - architect Frank Lloyd Wright, 1901 In the early 1900s, as American technological and manufacturing prowess transformed modern life, some spoke of industry as a new religion and the machine as an object of worship. New technologies like the steam engine, light bulb, and telephone seemed supernatural and all-powerful. Writer Henry Adams first witnessed electrical generators at the Great Exposition of 1900 and said he felt “the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross”; photographer Paul Strand called the camera the “New God”; and writer E.B. White noted, “The church merely holds out the remote promise of salvation: the radio tells you if it’s going to rain tomorrow.” This exhibit contains American works of art of the last 100 years in which the machine, both sublime and perilous, acts as muse. For artists seeking a break from tradition, the machine’s potential to reinvent the world made it an ideal symbol. Industrial complexes, urban architecture, and machine-crafted forms became potent modern subjects. Still, an undercurrent of anxiety and at times outright protest has a tangible presence in this work. Artists, always the emotional barometers of a culture, were sensitive to the potential for unchecked technology and industry to oppress the artistic impulse and to devastate humanity and nature.

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