Russian-American Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor
Bialystok, Russia (present-day Poland)
Great Neck, New York
Summary of Max Weber
Born in Russia, Weber emigrated with his family to New York as a child. His earliest artist training was with Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged his students to reject traditional narrative painting in favor of new explorations of expression and form. Weber was one of the first American artists to incorporate "primitive" influences into his work. He also studied in Paris at the Academie Julian, where he learned from contemporary Fauve and Cubist painters (even took classes with Henri Matisse) and became friends with Henri Rousseau. Weber would be responsible for Rousseau's first exhibition in America and he also helped to introduce Cubism to an American audience after his return to New York in 1909. Friends with many experimental artists in Paris, Weber was responsible for sending the first of Picasso's paintings to America for exhibition.
Despite his early success in France, Weber often felt that his work was unappreciated and his prickly response alienated him from many colleagues and potential supporters. Although he was once a central member of the Stieglitz circle, even living at Stieglitz's 291 Gallery when he was very poor, the men had a falling-out in the early 1910s; he was excluded from the Armory Show when he protested the small number of works he was invited to submit. In his later years, Weber turned to more representational, often expressionistic renderings of Jewish life and culture.
- In Paris, Weber was a founding member of the New Society of American Artists and formed part of a transatlantic network of painters. He greatly admired the work of Cézanne, whose paintings he discovered at the salons hosted by Gertrude and Leo Stein. Returning to America, he was linked to the Stieglitz circle and taught at the Clarence H. White School of Photography and the Art Students League, where he popularized theories of abstraction and expressionism (he is cited as having importantly influenced Mark Rothko).
- When first exhibited in New York, Weber's paintings were a shocking introduction of European avant-garde ideas. His celebration of primitivism, both in the exploration of non-Western art and the naive work of Henri Rousseau, broke with traditional sources for artistic inspiration. As one of the first American painters to embrace Cubism, exhibitions of Weber's work predated the 1913 Armory Show and introduced the fractured, non-perspectival style to New York, to much early disdain. While unpopular with critics, these abstractions cemented his reputation among the avant-garde as one of the most daring and experimental painters in New York.
- The expressive quality of Weber's abstractions was underscored by the publication of his 1916 book, Essays on Art. This text circulated modernist ideas, arguing for the spiritual significance of art that reproduced experiences rather than just reproducing images.
- Despite the widespread skepticism his work provoked, Weber did enjoy support from important museums and curators. His 1913 exhibition at the Newark Museum was the first solo show of modern art in an American museum and his 1930 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was that institution's first solo show of an American artist.
Progression of Art
Weber's still life incorporates elements of Cubism through the flattened pictorial space and multiple points of view. This is particularly evident in the draped background, which is depicted as intermingling with objects in the foreground, blending objects and space.
Weber adopts the nearly monochromatic palette of early Cubism, as well, which furthers adds to the confusion of spatial depth. Traditional in its subject, this arrangement is rendered in bold brushstrokes that create a sense of life and movement while the overall portrayal reveals the influence of Cézanne. Although other American artists would come to incorporate these elements in their abstract paintings, Weber was the first to understand, incorporate, and build upon French Cubism in his work.
Oil with charcoal or chalk on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
At first glance, this composition might seem to be a completely abstract array of colors and shapes, but when analyzed with the title in mind, recognizable components of the titular setting begin to emerge: the wall, the black-and-yellow tiled floor, faces, etc. Harnessing the energy of Cubist abstraction, Weber's painting conveys not only these details of a Chinese restaurant, but conjures the bustling atmosphere and quick pace of urban life.
Weber himself explained this painting in sensorial terms, writing: "On entering a Chinese restaurant from the darkness of the night outside, a maze and blaze of light seemed to split into fragments the interior and its contents, the human and inanimate. For the time being the static became transient and fugitive - oblique planes and contours took vertical and horizontal positions, and the horizontal and vertical became oblique, the light so piercing and so luminous, the colors so lucid and the life and movement so enchanting!"
In the early-20th century, Chinese restaurants were becoming a popular fixture in lower Manhattan. Not only were these neighborhoods the epicenter of immigrant communities, but also frequented by artists who appreciated an inexpensive meal. The Chinese restaurant became part of bohemian social experiences and was doubtlessly part of Weber's world.
This painting shows a solid understanding of Cubist principles in the fragmentation of forms, suggestions of objects through components of shape and color, and the fracturing of planes and space into facets. Weber also incorporates collage elements, blurring the lines of reality and illusion, similar to the collages of Picasso and Braque during the early 1910s.
Oil, charcoal, and collages paper on linen - Whitney Museum of American Art
Adoration of the Moon
As a child in the Jewish town of Bialystock, Weber's early memories were centered in old world religious iconography and tradition. His father, Morris Weber, left the family for America when Max was five years old. The artist later recalled the personal significance of the monthly celebrations of the new moon: as the men would gather to pray, he would think of his father who could see the same crescent from his home in New York. The family would be reunited in New York when Max was ten.
In his later years, Weber turned away from abstraction in favor of figurative paintings that often drew inspiration from his Jewish heritage and childhood memories. Here, the four men gathered have an otherworldly quality, their elongated bodies recalling the Byzantine decorations common in Weber's hometown.
Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art