Georgia O'Keeffe

2 Yellow Leaves, 1928. (Georgia O'Keefe / June 19, 2014)

Throw out the phrase "modern art," and most people immediately think of abstract art. The new exhibit at Springfield Museums in Massachusetts attempts to dispel that notion, by presenting a wide variety of artworks created by American artists from the early 20th century.

"American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell" is a 57-piece exhibit culled from the Brooklyn Museum's 800-strong collection of American modern art.

"What's most interesting about that period was how many different strains, different avenues, an artist could take," curator Teresa Carbone said. "It was different from the 19th century, where the one developing aesthetic was academic realism and all artists tried to jump on board."

The new strains mostly had their roots in European art. Americans who studied in France brought home the notion of cubism and adapted it to their own sensibilities. "They were trying to bring 'American-ness' to abstracted styles," Carbone said.

One of these was Stuart Davis, who worked in what he called "Colonial Cubism," as seen in his 1958 work "Famous Firsts," one of three Davis works in the show. His works were inspired by America's greatest cultural export — jazz — and his imagery took off from industrial influences such as gas pumps and electrical signs. "However ahead of Europe Americans were in terms of engineering, they were entirely followers in the aesthetics of modern impressionism," Carbone said.

An artist who evolved from 19th-century influences to 20th-century ones was Max Weber, who has three works in the show, the Cezanne-inspired "Abraham Walkowitz" from 1907 and "The Cellist" and "The Visit," 1917 and 1919 works inspired by both Cubism and African masks.

Other artists went the other way, admiring Cubism but settling one more representational styles. "They were trying to maintain the level of daring but they also had to live as well," she said.

Other segments of the exhibit are titled "The Still Life Revisited," "Nature Essentialized," "Modern Structures," "Engaging Characters" and "Americana." "Nature Essentialized" is dominated by the giant in that field, Georgia O'Keeffe, who has four works in the show, including her "Yellow Leaves," from 1928.

"She worked to gigantize and simplify leaves and flowers. She felt people were losing their touch with nature and wanted to bring it into their experience blotting out anything else, to overwhelm the viewer with the natural world and with essential shapes and colors," Carbone said.

Milton Avery, who grew up and trained as an artist in Hartford, is represented by two pieces, the 1943 "Artist's Daughter by the Sea," a simplified but representational work, and "Sunset," from 1952, a stripped-down and abstracted seascape.

The sad side of life is the realm of "Engaging Characters." Raphael Soyer's "Cafe Scene," from 1940, shows a woman sitting dejectedly alone in a bistro. Reginald Marsh's "Grand Windsor Hotel," from 1946, shows down-and-out characters gathering ouside a seamy inn. "Welcome Home," a 1946 oil by Jack Levine, subtly ridicules the miltiary with its vision of bloated fatcats. "The Confidence Man," Guy Pene du Bois' 1919 work, gets its tension from its title, which turns a commonplace social encounter into something menacing.

The humor in the exhibit comes out most strongly in the "Americana" segment, which features Norman Rockwell's "The Tattoo Artist" from 1944, of a sailor who has loved many women, and "Vision of New York," a 1926 work by N.C. Wyeth, which shows elf-like men gazing at a dream vision of a big city.

Other artists represented include Marsden Hartley, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Alfred Henry Maurer, Warren Wheelock, Albert Gallatin, George Lovett Kingsland Morris, Byron Browne, Charles G. Shaw, Maurice Brazil Prendegast, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Niles Spencer, Robert Hallowell, Robert Brackman, George Biddle, Rockwell Kent, Elie Nadelman, Joseph Stella, Augustus Vincent Tack, Arthur G. Dove, Loren MacIver, George Wesley Bellows, Isabel Lydia Whitney, Glenn O. Coleman, Luigi Lucioni, Francis Criss, Herzl Emanuel, George Copeland Ault, Mahonri M. Young, Ernest Crichlow, Morris Hirshfield and Grandma Moses.

"AMERICAN MODERNS, 1910-1960: FROM O'KEEFFE TO ROCKWELL" will be at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, part of the Springfield Museums complex at 21 Edwards St. in Springfield, Mass., until Aug. 31. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday,  10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Open Mondays starting June 30.) Details: www.springfieldmuseums.org.