American artists in the early decades of the 20th century found rich inspiration in vaudeville halls, revue theaters, and moving-picture houses. On the Edge of Your Seat is the first major exhibition devoted to the art inspired by the visual culture of American popular entertainment from 1890 to 1930. Through a multimedia presentation, this exhibition explores the absorption and creative interpretation of this exciting time in history by the visual artists of the day.
On the Edge of Your Seat examines the intersection of cultural forces that shaped American popular entertainment in the early years of the 20th century. It analyzes how and why people attended vaudeville and early film in droves, contributing to the rise of American mass culture. In addition, the persistence of visual spectacle in many aspects of American life today has its roots in this era.
Historians in recent years have confirmed that vaudeville and early moving pictures provided a means for audiences to make sense of the furiously changing world outside the theater. Many visual artists were drawn to this new realm of visual delights. In turn, they sought to convey their intense experiences in these popular entertainment venues—not with a precise documentary style, but with their strongest creative powers.
Their works captured and equaled the arresting stimuli they experienced. On the Edge of your Seat offers a new understanding of these works of art by recalling the visual culture in America that first inspired them.
Artists represented in On the Edge of Your Seat jettisoned an academic style and pursued a progressive manner of painting. Aggressive asymmetry, vast zones of unmodulated surfaces, fast brushwork, skewed points of view, discordant cropping, and bright hues demonstrate the attempt these artists made to invent a new idiom in paint, one that expressed the animated modern scene they observed in popular American theaters.
With over 100 works of art, posters, playbills, photographs, motion picture equipment, and vintage film clips, On the Edge of Your Seat presents seminal works of art by Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, Walt Kuhn, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and others.
This exhibition explores both why visual artists chose vaudeville theaters, revue halls, and early motion picture houses as subjects and how they developed formal languages to communicate what they experienced. The paintings, drawings, and prints explored here are extraordinarily revealing. From them, we can learn much about the complicated beginnings of modernity in the United States and about American artists’ search to express their life experience in the first decades of the 20th century. In particular, a heightened stress on visual sensation materialized during this period.
Numerous artists found ways to tap the complex onrush of urban modernity. In their rebellion against traditional academies, they seized upon the animation of contemporary life. They were pioneers, sometimes stumbling and groping toward pictorial forms that could represent what they were seeing, hearing, and feeling. Changed social realities as well as transformed perceptions are reflected in their work. The visual culture of early 20th-century popular entertainment—chiefly vaudeville and film—provided a source that various American artists used to make art that was distinctly modern.
On the Edge of Your Seat was conceived by the Weisman’s curator, Patricia McDonnell. Scholars from across the country have been involved in the planning of this project and have contributed to the accompanying catalog.