Exhibition - American Art in the Atomic Age: 1940-1960

Friday, Feb 23, 2024 from 11:00am to 6:00pm

  828-253-3227
  Website

In the summer of 1939, physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Nazi Germany was researching a deadly nuclear weapon. Within months, the Nazi army invaded Poland, beginning World War II. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development fast-tracked a program known as the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.  

Three years later, the unfathomable devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the end of World War II, and the United States became a dominant player on the world stage. Yet, the memory of the devastating horrors of war and the anxiety of knowing that henceforth all human life was in peril weighed heavily on the country’s collective consciousness. This was the beginning of the Atomic Age.  

A number of European artists had emigrated to the United States with the rise of fascism, and an artistic exchange blossomed with Atelier 17 at its center. The experimental print studio was based in Paris between 1927 and 1939, when master printer Stanley William Hayter (1901–1988) relocated it to New York City—a decision that spared the artist and his studio from the Nazi occupation of Paris.   

Atelier 17 operated in New York for fifteen years, between 1940 and 1955. The New York studio attracted European emigrants like André Masson, Yves Tanguy, and Joan Miró. Through contact with the Surrealists at Atelier 17, American artists like Philip Guston, Louise Nevelson, and Hale Woodruff were introduced to the role of the unconscious in personal expression.

While Atelier 17 operated in New York, the United States entered the era of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, a period in which fear and political repression under McCarthyism threatened artistic expression in every medium. In such a dystopic period, the act of making art became a reaffirmation of hope, a way for artists to parse what it meant to live in this new Atomic Age.  

American Art in the Atomic Age: 1940–1960 is organized by the Asheville Art Museum and guest curated by Marilyn Laufer & Tom Butler. Thanks to Ron Rumford, Dolan Maxwell for the loan of the works and their support of the Museum.


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