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|Art Under Covers
by Suzaan Boettger
|ONCE UPON A TIME, in the middle of the last century, the art historian Leo Steinberg contradicted critics' focus on the sensory aspects of abstract painting by writing an article titled "The Eye is the Part of the Mind." Now, consideration of what he called the "social role of fixating thought in esthetic form" is well established, and recent text-based books make me wonder, what happened to
attention to the reader's Eye? Stanford professor Wanda Corn's book The Great American Thing (University of California Press, $50) does both: it's a rare art history, both fully thought-out and thoroughly illustrated.
The Great American Thing
One of those ways was to insist on the ambiguous title The Great American Thing. It was Georgia O'Keeffe who said that any American artist of talent -- a potential source of the Great American novel, play or poem -- "would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them … how was the Great American Thing going to happen?"
This relationship between New York and Paris is central to Corn's account of what she has subtitled Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935. In her consideration of the "cultural nationalism" that accompanied America's new economic power in the early 20th century, Corn emphasizes Europeans' idolization of New York as a modern metropolis.
Duchamp arrived in 1915 and became part of the Parisian wartime colony in Manhattan. That year he bought a snow shovel, painted the title In Advance of a Broken Arm on it, signed it and exhibited it as a "readymade." But was Duchamp's gesture as cool and arbitrary we might like?
Corn points out that "the Frenchman [was] accustomed to streets swept of snow by brooms of straw or twigs whose design had changed little since the Middle Ages." The scooping ability of the galvanized iron blade delighted the foreigner, confirming America's industrial ingenuity. Duchamp adopted the commercial term "ready-made" to contrast with "custom-made" and identify with mass-produced consumer items.
Corn juxtaposes the "transatlantics" like Duchamp, Gerald Murphy and Joseph Stella, who regularly made crossings, to "natives" like O'Keeffe, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, who considered themselves "rooted" in local idioms. Instead of touring Europe, O'Keeffe moved to the southwest and pictured animal bones bleached by the desert sun. Corn reports that O'Keeffe's artistic reputation as a kind of primal female, who specialized in close-focus paintings of flowers, was one imposed by her overbearing lover, Alfred Stieglitz. He then objected to her depiction of nocturnal erect skyscrapers, because they did exactly what she intended: broke gendered taboos about appropriate subject matter for a female artist.
Corn interprets the exemplary O'Keeffe image of a steer skull from multiple vantage points: in terms of modernist abstraction, of a traditional vanitas symbol of mortality, a crucifix, an icon of western pioneering, and a stand-in for lost Indians, all referenced by vintage pictorial documents. But the scholar is also a sensualist, and first hooks us with an absorbing description of this seemingly animated form and its uncanny hypnotic effect.
Corn's attention to visual experience, in combination with historical information and her sense of broad cultural contingency, that makes The Great American Thing so special. The book won this year's Charles C. Eldredge Prize for distinguished scholarship in American art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
New York School Abstract Expressionists
But the bulk of the book is devoted to full-page illustrations, one to an artist, accompanied on the facing page by a typically airy artist's statement. The images make one gasp at the fine balance of composition and emotive power that was the holy grail of the era. Alfred Leslie's Four Panel Green (1957), for instance, plays an asymmetrical cruciform joint against irregularly brushed field of radiant green and ragged stripes of white and black. Elaine de Kooning's abrupt swaths of cream and black against salmon, ochre and taupe in her Untitled (1949) evoke wrenching dynamics.
Recycling art criticism
Jed Perl, whose journalistic writing can be found in the New Republic, the New Criterion and elsewhere, argues in Eyewitness, Reports from an Art World in Crisis (Basic Books, $35) that the art world has become decadent. "Art stars" like Cindy Sherman, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel are made not by hard work and talent but by something called the "glamour factor" and "gonzo careerism."
According to Perl, "their exhibitions don't give public expression to private feelings so much as they offer canny responses to market pressures." Attention to the market, Perl claims, has blinded people to "the other art world," artists who produce "authentic, independent" work and are now finding it harder than ever to prosper.
This appears like the old canard that current art is a sham, but I think a core of it is accurate -- our culture is dominated by marketing. Everything is entertainment, ephemeral fashion, Pop. And artists seem to barely resist this loss of dignity.
Perl proclaims that "a work of art must have a freestanding value," meaning the esthetic one, that involves close attention to a work of art's visual elements -- hence the big red "eye" as part of the title on the book's cover. Few art historians would disagree -- increasingly, their contextual analyses incorporate discussion of the work's material quality. And Perl himself hardly restricts his comments to the visual!
Rather, the artists whom Perl promotes as insufficiently recognized -- Joan Snyder, Temma Bell -- work in modes that were fresh decades ago, many decades. Even before the aura of transient fashion pervaded the art world, styles changed as culture did. Perl's next diatribe should take up the destructive impact on artists of ageism -- perhaps another source of his favorite artists' neglect.
The collapse of high art
But overall, Kuspit believes in art's power, and his new book, The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, $35), gives our favorite artistic discipline a positive spin. The sappy cover image of a radiant moon -- it looks like a coarse Arthur Dove but is in fact Gregory Amenoff doing "Romantic Mystical Nature Painting" -- says it all.
In his introduction, titled "Why Painting?" Kuspit makes it clear that his recent censuring cast is that of a disappointed lover. He's passionate about the power of painting, "because in striving for absolutely 'spontaneous gesture' and unapologetically 'personal idea' modern painting conveys the most salient characteristics of the true self."
Kuspit's ideal practitioner of "Postmodern Visionary Painting" is Vincent Desiderio, who applies Old Master brilliance" to a highly conscious ambivalence about the power of art. He argues that Desiderio's ambiguous realist scenes proceed from a belief in the essential importance of the self-examined life. They exude emotional complexity, and accept unresolved conflicts.
Kuspit has an emotional gravitas that takes art and the growth of the self seriously, and also has the critical density to make something of it. His information also derives from looking closely at the material quality of works. Too bad we can't: the few illustrations are black-and-white and small.
Art and philosophy
Danto equates Warhol's Brillo Boxes and Proctor & Gamble's as if indistinguishable, when Warhol's were out of scale, and both lovingly and satirically aggrandized. He seeks to "draw a philosophical line between art and reality" without acknowledging that both are fluid social constructions, and that art is both a reflection and a creation of current realities. He writes, "by 1964 real objects had penetrated art as subjects for realistic depiction" and needs to read Wanda Corn. All this fatuousness produces a Reader's Disgust.
Sculpture and doubt
Assertions of present-day cynicism -- that we're not sure what to believe in any more -- is easy enough to accept, but modernist certainty? Modernist esthetic imperatives masked their own doubts, which are quite evident in the work (cf. Meyer Schapiro's "Cezanne's Doubt," in Modern Art, not to mention all the Abstract Expressionists' painting in and painting out).
As a manifestation of his own doubt, McEvilley's art criticism is much more persuasive. His unusual empathy for emotional desolation, and for artists with shamanistic, primitivist tendencies, has resulted in inspired essays. McEvilley's "Negative Presences in Secret Spaces: The Art of Eric Orr" and "Anish Kapoor: The Darkness Inside a Stone," for instance, are the most incisive written on these artists. Since reading McEvilley on Kapoor's "cosmic love affair" and "the darkness in which one seeks to know oneself" for the 1990 British catalogue for the Venice Biennale, from which this is reprinted, I've been eager to see a big show of Kapoor. (The measly black-and-white illustrations here don't satisfy that desire.)
McEvilley's final section on artists such as Tony Cragg and James Croak, "Secular Iconographies," broadens his purview, but he should continue to seek and speak for our contemporary mystics. And like Kuspit, find a publisher who matches their brilliant minds with vivid appeals to our eyes.
For insight into the family background of Whitney Museum director Maxwell Anderson, read the riveting South Mountain Road (Simon Schuster; $23), a biography by his aunt Hesper Anderson, daughter of his namesake grandfather. Initially a journalist, the senior Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter on projects such as What Price Glory (1924), Key Largo (1939) and The Bad Seed (1954). Now a screenwriter in her own right (nominated for an Oscar for writing Children of a Lesser God), Anderson tells of frolicking from childhood among stars of stage and screen, who became her godparents, while staving off her mother's eight suicide attempts, the last consummated. Earlier this month, veteran San Francisco book critic Pat Holt wrote, "I'm not sure why New York critics missed this compelling memoir about theater luminaries in the 1940s and '50s [it was published last April], but what a wallop it doth pack."
The major art book publisher Abrams (a subsidiary of La Martiniere Groupe) purchased the illustrated book publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang and the calendar purveyor golden Turtle Press. British media conglomerate Pearson Ltd., which in the United States owns Penguin/Putnam/Viking/Dutton/New American Library, is buying the U.S. educational services company, National Computer Systems. Their aim is to "create the world's leading integrated education company." These consolidations are a disadvantage for authors and museums, who now have fewer editors to compete for their services, as well as for readers, whose options in published books may be limited.
SUZAAN BOETTGER can be reached by email at .
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