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Influence of Cubism on Future Modern Art

In art, the development of Cubism is one of the most important events of the 20th century.  Cubism allowed artists to see beyond the traditional art of Europe and into more abstract forms.  Without Cubism, styles such as Minimalism, Precisionism, and abstract forms of Polymorphism would almost certainly not exist. The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam, American Landscape by Charles Sheeler, and Untitled 1984 by Donald Judd all have their roots in the ideas and ideals of Cubism.

In 1943, two years after returning to Cuba, Wilfredo Lam completed the painting, The Jungle.  The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) notes that Lam had been part of the Surrealist movement in France before returning to Cuba. This painting shows how Lam was able to master polymorphism.  The Jungle is a painting that depicts a number of creatures.  The creatures are a hybrid of humans, animals, and plants.  They are a combination of human figures with African tribal masks, some form of primate, and either trees or, more likely, sugar canes. The way they resemble a sugar cane field is reinforced by the stalks that are visible in the middle plane of the painting and how densely packed they figures are.  The combination of African masks and the tribal dance like poses of the figures gives the painting a feeling of Santeria influences.  Combine this with the features of the sugar cane field in the painting and one gets the feeling he is trying to sum up the entire culture of the sugar cane workers in one painting.

The painting contains some important influences from Cubism including use of flatness and use of simplified forms. Lam has been quoted as saying, upon seeing Picasso’s work, that it was “not only a valuation… but a shock” (“Wifredo Lam” N.p.). In addition, the figures in this painting are very stylized and have a great deal of emotional intensity, two traits that he may have borrowed from Picasso or Cubism in general. The figures in the painting are wearing African masks in the painting.  This was another feature that Lam borrowed from Cubism.  In particular, Picasso used African masks in his paintings; for example, he used them in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Though this painting may fall under Surrealism more then it falls under any kind of Cubism, it is hard to say that this painting would have existed without the Cubist features and influences.

In 1984, Donald Judd created a work he never named, Untitled.  Like many of Judd’s works, the work is made of common industrial materials. This work is made up of a number of painted rectangular shells made up of sheet-aluminum. The colors for the aluminum are based on colors from an industrial color chart.  The shells are bolted together into a larger long rectangular form. The Tate (“Donald Judd” N.p.) quotes Judd as saying, “I didn’t want them to combine … I wanted a multiplicity all at once.”  The colors are organized to prevent them from combining; Judd avoided any kind of obvious contrasts or harmonies between the colors.  In general, the way colors work with the other colors is an important part of this work.

Judd was among the key Minimalist artists, though he did not want his work to be seen as Minimalism.  The Tate (“Donald Judd” N.p.) states that Judd rejected the Minimalist label, and instead described his work as “the simple expression of complex though.” Judd did follow many of the more important principals of Minimalism, including using industrial materials and emphasizing those materials as well as the color, form, and space. Judd’s works force the observer’s attention to the structure and the space around it.  This, in turn, forces the observer of his works to consider the relationships between the object, the observer, and their environment (“Donald Judd” N.p.).

Judd consistently, throughout much of his career, stressed the integrity of the material object, without illusion. On many occasions, he stated that the painting was dead and had become part of the idea of “objectness” (Thompson 294).  In his 1965 essay, Structured Objects, he states, “half or more of the best new work in the past few years has been neither painting nor sculpture” (Thompson, 294).  He goes on to say that “real space” was “more powerful and specific then paint on a flat surface” (Thompson 294).  Judd believed that his works were a combination of sculpture and painting.  HE believed that by giving his ‘canvas’ (for lack of a better term) three dimensions, he has able to give his work more meaning then he could have in any other form.  He still used space like a sculpture may and he still used interacting colors and shapes like a painter may.  More importantly, he used those simultaneously, in one work.

The simplified shapes and shocking, anti-art values of Cubism gave Judd the basis for much of his art.  Cubism opened the door to allowing art to be truly shocking, allowing future forms of art to go further than their predecessors.  Judd, because of the inherent shock value Cubism began, was able to combine sculpture and painting without the community shunning him.  It also prevented any of his work from being overwhelming, since some shock value may have been almost expected.  By going against the traditions of artistic expressions, and including industrial materials, Judd was creating another form of “anti-art.”  Cubism, as well as integrating found objects into art, opened the door to the expansion of the idea of “anti-art.”  Again, without Cubism opening the door, Judd may not have considered making the art he did, using industrial materials and integrating the painting and sculpture into one object, one piece of art.

In 1930, Charles Sheeler painted American Landscape.  The painting depicts the Ford Motor Company’s factory west of Detroit, Michigan.  In the foreground of the painting, there is canal as well as train tracks with a cargo train on it and a crane over the train.  The only living thing in the painting is a man standing along the train tracks with one of his arms out.  The person helps add scale to the painting, by showing how small one person is relative to the rest of the plant.  It also makes the painting seem more like a freeze frame, with him stuck in the middle of a motion. In the middle ground, there are piles of raw materials. In the background of the painting, there are the enormous factory buildings, siloes, and smoke stacks.  The smoke coming out of the smoke stack is among the three items in the painting that does not have a definite geometric shape.  The other two items are the piles of raw materials and the water in the canal.

American Landscape is a misleading name for this painting.  The name suggests a nature scene from one of America’s wilderness areas.  Instead, you have this huge structure that dwarfs every natural thing around it.  The one exception is the blue sky above it, but even that is obscured by the smoke coming out of the factory.

This style of painting, with its sharp lines and lack of natural or emotional elements, is called ‘Precisionism’ by Sheeler (Passmore, Rogers, and Simmons 66).  This style is heavily influenced by modern technology and is defined by sharply defined objects, geometric forms, and changes in the landscape due to technological progress (Passmore, Rogers, and Simmons 66). Sheeler’s view of the American culture is shown in the “landscape” of the factory.  Humans have replaced the natural landscape with industrialism and progress. Many pictures of American Landscapes are built around some body of water (Passmore, Rogers, and Simmons 66).  In this painting, there is also a body of water, the canal.  This is yet another sign of industrial progress replacing nature.

This is yet another painting and style of painting that can thank Cubism for existing.   The painting, like many of Picasso’s Cubist paintings, is flat but with a depth to it.  The painting’s flatness is not necessarily similar to the same flatness that you may see in a Cubist painting.  In Cubism, there is a flatness but with obvious planes.  In American Landscape, the flatness is similar to the flatness you would see in a photograph.  According to the Artchive, Sheeler did do a fair amount of professional photography so this is understandable (Hughes, N.p.).  Instead of using planes to show depth, Sheeler opts to use overlapping structures and buildings becoming less detailed as the depth increases. The name of this painting versus what the painting actually is could come to shock to some people.  The shock of the change could be compared to the shock of a Cubist painting.  Like many other modern paintings, the initial shock of Cubism, followed by the normalization of the shocking characteristic allowed for the public to the slowly worked into more shocking art.  The drastic change between the American Landscape that people tend to imagine when they think about paintings and the American Landscape people get when they look at Sheeler’s work is designed around the shock in art that Cubism started.



Works Cited

Date. “Wifredo Lam.” Guggenheim Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. <;.

“Donald Judd.” Tate Modern. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <;.

Hughes, Robert. “Charles Sheeler.” Mark Harden’s Artchive. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <;.

Lisa Rogers, Linda Simmons, and Kaye Passmore. “15a.” Picturing America. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 2009. 66-67. Print.

Thompson, Jon. How to read a modern painting: understanding and enjoying the modern masters. New York: Abrams, 2006. Print.

“Wifredo Lam.” The Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <;.



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