The Eight and American Modernisms

March 6 - May 24, 2009


Introductory wall panel for the exhibition


The Eight and American Modernisms

The Eight and American Modernisms reclaims these individual artists' contributions during a tumultuous era when modern art of all tendencies was vying for attention. The Eight's contemporaries praised them for creating "modern art of one kind and another." A century later, their artwork still hangs together in American art collections as the result of their one and only collective enterprise, the 1908 New York exhibition at Macbeth Galleries. The traditional narrative of American art history grants The Eight less than a decade of leadership in the rise of modernism in the United States. Allegedly, The Eight's tenure as progressive artists ended in 1913, when European modernism on display at the Armory Show, render their "realistic" art and their careers outdated. This exaggeration of the demise of The Eight's contributions to American modernism obscures their successful, independent professional journeys.

"We've come together because we are so unalike," pronounced Robert Henri. If there was a unifying mission in The Eight's organization of the Macbeth Galleries' show, it was to celebrate their individual styles as multiple modes of modern art. The individual artistic achievements of The Eight are undermined by the careless application of the "Ashcan school" label as an equivalent identity. This insistent focus on realism as their unifying vision is not only wrong but it loses sight of their richly complex personas and the full development of their mature styles. The reestablished significance of The Eight in their post-Armory decades until the 1930s disputes the conventional wisdom that these artists were irrelevant. Championed as modern men who succeeded in disassociating themselves from dated sentimentality while resisting uninspired efforts to "Americanize" avant-garde European styles, The Eight encouraged countless American artists also to value their independence.

Elizabeth Kennedy

Curator of Collection, Terra Foundation for American Art


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