The United States is the driving force behind modern culture and popular art. The ‘American dream’ attracts people from all across the globe to the land of promise, dream and technological advancement. This lure of opportunity and progress attracted a large number of European intellectuals post-world war-II. Its fertile and stable environment allowed western art and architecture to flourish and artistic endeavors to come to fruition. New York is now the art capital of the world, the position previously held by Paris. 

Here, we look at major art and architecture movements that originated in the USA and impacted the whole globe.

1. Chicago School

The United States can rightfully be called the “Birthplace of Skyscrapers” as the technique of making skyscrapers originated here in the late 19th century with the advent of elevators and steel structures. This style, also called “commercial architecture”, consisted of terra-cotta clad buildings with neoclassical ornamentation. Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham were torchbearers of this movement. The second wave of this movement came during the times of Mies Van der Rohe, inspired by modern aesthetic and tube structures.

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Home Insurance Building by Architect William Le Baron Jenney – 1885 ©www.designingbuildings.co.uk
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Wainwright Building by Adler and Sullivan -1891 ©www.archdaily.com

2. Streamline Moderne

As Art Deco moved towards the Bauhaus, it transformed into Streamline Moderne. This movement took birth in the United States in the 1930s and found expression in architecture, furniture, and everyday electronic objects. Horizontally-oriented, streamlined with rounded edges, it was inspired by ocean liners and nautical themes. The whole effect was subdued in colors and absent of ornamentation. Streamline Moderne later developed into Googie style, inspired by automobiles and the atomic age. This style was widely used in garages, airports, motels, and other such commercial buildings.

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Coulter’s Departmental Store ©www.laconservancy.org
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A Streamline Moderne Toaster ©www.study.com

3. Pop Art

This highly ambivalent movement, which began in Britain, took inspiration from the bold and aggressive advertising prevalent in the States. It later took off in the USA as the deconstruction of its own popular culture. These artists took inspiration from everyday objects, which was a total deviation from earlier romantic notions and sacredness of fine art. It has been debated if the artists were searching for the profound in the mundane or they were criticizing the culture of mass consumption. The movement was mainly composed of the commercial artist and flourished in New York.

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Whaam! by Roy Lichenstein – 1963 ©www.tate.org.uk
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Quadrant Micke by Andy Warhol ©www.christies.com

4. Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism can be called the successor to Surrealism. It also originated from accessing the unconscious mind and automatism. Having emerged post-world war-II, it served as the purge of trauma and anxiety experienced during the time. Prominent New York artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko put it on the map as the Western art capital. The movement was marked by bold gestural strokes to convey the inner world of the painter. It later developed into two different schools called Action Painting and a less emotional variant called Colour Field Theory.

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Composition by Mark Rothko -1959 ©www.artsy.net
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Autumn Rhythm (No. 30) by Jackson Pollock – 1950 ©www.metmuseum.org

5. Minimalism

Minimalism began in the USA in the 1960s as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. As opposed to its expressionist movement, minimal art was highly literal and not suggestive. This art movement preceded Conceptualism and sought to reduce the art, whether it be painting, sculpture, cinema, or music, to its fundamental essence with nothing to spare. Minimalism found expression in the graphic user interface of computers and mobile phones for a smooth and intuitive experience.

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Robert Morris- 1965 ©www.tate.org.uk
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Hyena Stomp by Frank Stella – 1962 ©www.tate.org.uk

6. Earth Art

A successor to Conceptualism and Minimalism, Earth Art or Land Art was an American movement that treated the elements of nature as part of both the artistic process and its outcome. The installations were site-specific, participatory, and experimental. They were left exposed to disintegrating forces, which was very different from the usual commodification of art and the gallery culture. The location was highly important in Earth Art as artists like Robert Smithson often derived the sculptures from the site itself.

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A line made by walking by Richard Long – 1967 ©www.ca.phaidon.com
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Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson – 1970 ©www.ca.phaidon.com

7. Mid-Century Modernism

The architects educated in Bauhaus migrated to the USA post-world-war II started an altered version of International style in the California suburbs. The main characteristics of this style were open plans, post and beam structures, large openings, honest use of materials, and a deep connection with nature. It gave residents cleanliness of modernism with textured warmth produced by the juxtaposition of varying materials. Mid-century modernism was widely photographed in the 1950s and became the face of residential architecture all over the globe. Its two variants were Northwestern modernism and California Modernism.

Mid-Century Modernism
Kauffman House by Richard Neutra – 1947 ©www.ca.phaidon.com

8. New Formalism

An architectural movement in the late 1960s, new formalism was the fusion of characteristics of classical architecture with modernism. This fusion resulted in the wide use of classical features like colonnades, plazas, entablatures, archways. Materials like marble or travertine, which imparted a luxurious feel, were used. The style was suited for formal buildings like embassies, concert halls, and banks.

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Northwestern National Life Insurance Building ©www.docomomo-us.org
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Ambassador Auditorium – 1974 ©www.modernistarchitecture.blogspot.com

9. Organic Architecture

The term coined by Frank Lloyd Wright loosely connoted to the trend of architectural style that blended with the natural environment. All elements were in a symbiotic relationship with each other and tailored to fit the function. Organic architecture had been much contemplated before also. It took fresh forms in the contemporary world, e.g. biomorphic architecture or sustainable architecture.

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Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright – 1935 ©www.wikipedia.org
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Organic House by Javier Senosiain – 1984 ©www.inhabitat.com

As opposed to European art, American art was practical and away from romantic notions and finesse. It served as an outlet for the emotions and needs of the time it flourished in. American art and architecture focused less on ornamentation and more on ideas and concepts. Post Second World War, American soil has not only pushed art and culture in new directions but also made it available to the masses. This fact is its single greatest achievement.

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Pragya Shukla, a young architect, is currently practicing in city of Lucknow. Her interests include reading, hanging out with dogs and cruising the city for a good cup of tea. She aspires to write extensively on socio-cultural aspects of architecture and have a practice based on reasearch and social advocacy.

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