One afternoon in 1985, I rode in a taxi down Broadway with the physicist I.I. Rabi, discussing time and age. Rabi told me he was 88–“as old as the century.” “Rabi,” I murmured, “your computational powers appear to be waning.” He responded sharply: “The twentieth century began with the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson, in 1897.” In view of Rabi’s immense scientific contribution–he won the Nobel Prize for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance in molecular beams and trained far more Nobel laureates in physics than anyone else–it was entirely understandable that he should identify his birthdate with that of modern physics. And Rabi chided me for supposing that centuries begin and end on a midnight’s stroke. By the time the twentieth century began, it had, so far as physics is concerned, already begun.
It is irresistible to ask, on parallel grounds, when the twentieth century began in art. Since Modernism is prima facie the defining twentieth-century style, the beginning of twentieth-century art must coincide with the origins of Modernism, however that is to be dated. It had its beginnings in Europe sometime in the nineteenth century, defining itself in opposition to a tradition of pictorial representation dating back to the early Renaissance. According to that tradition, the visual and the picturable must be equivalent–a picture of an object should ideally yield the same experience as the object itself. For that reason, illusion played a central role in theories of visual art almost from the beginning. Modernism, for whatever reason, separated picturability and visuality, so that a picture need no longer look like what it was to represent. There is no specific event associated with this discovery. It was rather something that slowly dawned over the face of European art, possibly having to do with the growing awareness of different representational systems, coming from other cultures, which were free of the optical constraints of traditional Western painting. That would have meant a crisis of cultural confidence we can appreciate when we consider that such art had often been disparaged as “primitive” in relation to the towering European achievements. Some writers, Clement Greenberg for example, claim that Modernism begins with Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, in 1863. The first stage of the massive exhibition to which New York’s Museum of Modern Art will dedicate itself over a span of seventeen months–MoMA 2000–will be titled “Modern Starts” and will cover the years 1880 to 1920. Although the beginning of the twentieth century bisects this period perfectly, should we say that our century began in 1880? Or might Modernism itself have been a nineteenth-century phenomenon, which lived on for about two-thirds of the twentieth century? So that, artistically, we have been in the twenty-first century since perhaps 1964?
Gertrude Stein said, wittily but wrongly, that America is the oldest country in the world, since it was the first to enter the twentieth century. From the perspective of art history, the United States was among the last to enter the new century. In 1905 Matisse and his colleagues earned the label of fauves (wild beasts) at the Salon d’Automne. In 1907 Picasso painted the Demoiselles d’Avignon. A memorial exhibition of Cézanne in that same year sparked a series of radical experiments in modes of representation, which made artistic success increasingly dependent on formal innovation. Futurism began in 1909. Malevich’s Suprematism was invented in 1913. Discounting a handful of prophetic figures in the United States, Modernism exploded into American consciousness in the Armory Show of that year, primarily as an occasion for journalistic hilarity. If we follow Rabi’s principle, the twentieth century in American art began well after the calendar, which he held in such contempt, showed that it had begun.