by Max Weber
Executed on paper, the work is from Weber’s most important period known as his “Cubist Decade”
By Elizabeth Hamilton
Max Weber was born in 1881 in Bialystok, Russia. The Weber family emigrated to New York in 1891 and settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The young Weber quickly became immersed in the burgeoning artistic community of New York when he enrolled at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn in 1898. As a student, he trained beneath Arthur Wesley Dow, the influential arts educator. Dow encouraged Weber to explore artistic themes beyond the conventional notions of the Beaux Arts tradition. Drawing from the early modern movement in Europe, Dow stressed the importance of form, color, and composition over a literal depiction of nature. With this foundation, Weber had his sights set on Paris, the art capital of the world.
When Weber arrived in Paris in 1905, he was met with a vibrant and experimental artistic community. Weber attended the prestigious Académie Julian, Académie Colarossi and Académie de la Grande Chaumiere. His paintings were first exhibited in 1906 at the Salon des Independants and the Salon d’Automne alongside the works of Delaunay, Cézanne, and Matisse. Further, his entry into the circles of Leo and Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and Pablo Picasso gave him closer access to the avant-garde movements he would later bring to New York. In 1907, Weber was a pupil in Matisse’s studio art class where he experimented with the master’s Fauvist color theories. While also in Paris, Weber was introduced to the early developments of Cubism. The fragmented and repeated geometric shapes abstracted to depict African masks, musical instruments, and the female nude transformed Weber’s painting style and helped to usher in Modernism to the United States.
In 1909, Weber returned to New York, a city now burst- ing with dynamic modern life. The decade following his return was filled with experimentation with the radical theories learned in Paris. Support for his revolutionary works of art was provided by Alfred Stieglitz, the influential gallerist and photographer. Weber often exhibited his Cubist oil paintings, works on paper, and sculpture at Stieglitz’s “291” gallery on Fifth Avenue. Despite his progressive aims, Weber was initially met with harsh reviews from conservative American art critics.
Abstraction, 1917 is a major work on paper from Weber’s most important period known as his “Cubist Decade.” Works from this period are very rare to come to market, as most are in museum collections. In this work, Weber uses a subdued palette of blues and grays along with mauves and yellows to construct a portrait. Recognizable elements—red lips, a chin, an ear—float among geometric shapes of cones and trapezoids. The artist’s use of gouache conveys a softness not seen in his oils and Manhattan cityscapes of the period. However, Weber succeeds in portraying a dynamic yet balanced composition typical in his best Cubist works of this important period in his career.
Weber’s aim to overcome criticism and introduce art was eventually met with recognition from patrons, notable artists, and intellectuals. He remained a revolutionary throughout his career as his style evolved with each decade. Abstraction and his other early Cubist works contributed to the foundation of American Modernism.
Cover image: Max Weber, American, 1881–1961 Abstraction, 1917. Gouache on paper, 187⁄8 x 111⁄2 inches. Signed lower left