Octoberfest | The Nation



  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

That timeline itself, in any case, quickly shows itself to be as much of a convenient fiction as the book's veneer of collective authorship. Let's take a look at some of those pages on Matisse I mentioned. Matisse first enters the narrative near the beginning, in one of the two chapters headed with the year 1900: "Henri Matisse visits Auguste Rodin in his Paris studio but rejects the elder artist's sculptural style" reads the legend below the date. What follows is essentially a survey of Matisse's sculpture--a survey that gains a good deal from being framed in terms of the younger artist's debts to and differences from the elder (I owe the alliterative formulation to Bois). And through this dialectic, Bois is able to throw off, like so many sparks, compare-and-contrast references to Brancusi, Cubism and much more of early-twentieth-century sculpture--and even to the sixteenth-century Mannerist sculpture of Michelangelo and Giambologna--that allow the particularity of Matisse's achievement to emerge with great clarity. These are pages that, given the careful reading they deserve, would make a better introduction to Modernist sculpture than a great many laborious tomes. But they have very little to do with the year 1900, and one suspects that their sense would have been even more perspicuous had they been framed as a section of a single chapter entirely devoted to Matisse, references to whom have instead been scattered here and there, in chapters headed 1900, 1906, 1910 and 1944. While this dispersal helps show Matisse as part of the broader context of his time rather than as an isolated genius, it makes it hard for readers to get a real overview of his achievement in all its complexity. Moreover, it allows Bois to ignore those moments in the artist's career that might fit less comfortably into his view of what Matisse should have been. It's hard to imagine, for example, that any assessment of Matisse's work--or of European art in the postwar era in general--could overlook his chapel at Vence, which would be an equally fascinating case whether one judges it a failure or a triumph. This book does. While it makes sense to press the traditional protagonists of an art-historical narrative, namely individual artists, movements and national cultures, a bit further into the background, the timeline structure offers nothing to replace them with; it provokes a merely tactical dispersal of them into puzzle-piece-like fragments.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

Also by the Author

Must art confront ugly realities with an ugliness of its own?

With his cutouts, Henri Matisse tried to free himself from gravity.

Another problem is that, even with four authors representing diverse positions and interests, the combined fragments may not form a whole. The book's first half, spanning the years through 1945, covers what is by now the traditional canon of Modernist art produced in Europe and the United States. But the rest of the world is out of the picture. Even the Mexican muralists enter only by way of the scandal over the censorship of Diego Rivera's work for Rockefeller Center. Pre-World War II Africa and Asia are apparently entirely outside history, as far as this book is concerned. Likewise, any form of artistic endeavor beyond the boundaries of the professional art world counts only as an influence, never as a reality in itself. The discovery of the art of the insane and other "outsiders" can be mentioned insofar as it fascinated Paul Klee and Max Ernst, but the fact that figures like Adolph Wölffli, Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor produced oeuvres of considerable artistic value and presented substantial problems to criticism is nowhere registered. Popular arts, too, are excluded; no matter how many painters may have admired the work of George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, he remains beneath notice. These omissions are nowhere explained; for all their methodological scruple, the authors never theorize about the constitution or boundaries of their field of study. On the other hand, whereas until now the history of photography has always been considered a separate subject from that of the traditional arts of painting, sculpture and drawing, with only the occasional painter/photographer like Man Ray to link the two, Art Since 1900 substantially integrates them. This is the one truly groundbreaking aspect of the book.

If the first half of the book is stolidly conventional though finely executed, the second half is likely to be more controversial. The geographic boundaries begin to open up with the emergence of the Gutai group in Japan and the Brazilian Neoconcretists in the 1950s, though the book never shakes the sense that modernity is something that emerges from Europe and North America, without real roots elsewhere. But what's most striking about the pages covering the late '40s and '50s is the virtual erasure from the story of Abstract Expressionism. Yes, substantial pages are devoted to the crucial work of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. But they are strategically detached from their lived context. And when the other Abstract Expressionists can't be ignored, they are assassinated: What Willem de Kooning made of Pollock's innovations was "a kiss of death"; the movement as a whole is to be disdained as "a half-romantic, half-petty-bourgeois" version of the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum and infected with "much vulgarity" to boot. Petty bourgeois!--now, that hurts, coming from a crew with such an impeccable class composition as the October editors. Here at last, they seem to speak with something like true unanimity: a formal analysis of Bois's sort delivered in Buchloh's strident tone but employing Krauss's favorite epithet, "vulgar."

Well, at least such passages have the energy of a good knockabout fight to them. And on through the chapters on the '60s and '70s, the élan of the authors' varied parti pris makes the book fascinating, however much one might disagree. In fact, the more one disagrees, the more one can learn from mentally arguing with these generally well-articulated positions. (The spluttering intemperance of the pages on Abstract Expressionism is a rare exception.) On the other hand, this hardly makes for a trustworthy textbook. But things get worse as the last couple of decades loom. Suddenly, all fighting spirit seems to expire. Events on the timeline start becoming sparser just where the effect of perspective would normally make them more numerous--recent events tend to seem more important than they really are, after all. Here instead they occur in a desultory fashion, as if the effort of finding artworks that would at once exhibit some sort of imaginative energy while at the same time lending themselves to the authors' strictures on historical necessity were no longer worth the effort.

Bois's introduction on formalist and structuralist methods rightly concedes their limits, their affinity for certain very particular types of oeuvre, which are serial and systematic in nature (like Picasso's Cubism or the mature work of Mondrian), yet Bois rightly claims that "the heuristic power of structuralist and formalist analysis, especially with regard to the canonical moments of modernism, need not be discarded." But to have to judge one's own method as merely heuristic--preliminary, exploratory, destined to be replaced by something more solid--seems modest to the point of pessimism, all the more so if it is something to be reserved for "canonical works" rather than the living art of today. The other authors are equally frank about such matters. Buchloh has to admit that the social history of art is truly revealing only under special circumstances, "those historical situations where actual mediations between classes, political interests, and cultural forms of representation are solidly enacted and therefore relatively verifiable." But where these are ambiguous or, as with the twentieth-century avant-gardes, actively contested, then "social art history's attempts to maintain cohesive narrative accounts often emerge at best as either incongruent or incompatible with the structures and morphologies at hand, or at worst, as falsely recuperative." All the more so, perhaps, in a volume such as this, in which actual historical events outside the art world are kept strictly offstage, political position-taking becomes difficult to distinguish from mere attitudinizing.

What these scrupulous admissions indicate, though the authors of Art Since 1900 barely register this possibility, is that scholarly attempts to form coherent methodologies, ostensibly in order to put their efforts on a sounder scientific footing, are fundamentally something else altogether: expressions of taste. Scholars develop working methods that derive in part from the kinds of art they prefer--structural analysis is not merely something that Bois "applies" to Cubism; Cubism is already a "structuralist activity"--and that aid them in fathoming and intellectually appropriating it. This preference, this taste, is always the fundamental thing. Yet somehow the subjective, perhaps even irrational or arbitrary foundation of each author's activity is something that all four of them--even Foster, with his emphasis on psychoanalysis--are anxious to disavow. As if one's repulsion at the inevitable vulgarity of the self were enough to expunge it.

Just as these writers wish to disavow the subjective bases of their own positions, their tendency is to repudiate subjectivity in the art they write about. Perhaps this accounts for their extreme animus against the Abstract Expressionists. A good thing about this book's timeline structure is that pinning everything to a specific date is conducive to the use of telling anecdotes. There are a good many famous stories included, but one of the most famous anecdotes of modern art gets left out. The date is 1970; the place, the Marlborough Gallery in New York. Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston--another member of the Art Since 1900 blacklist, mentioned only as a possible influence on the Neo-Expressionism of George Baselitz, though the influence can only have flowed in the opposite direction--returned after several years of soul-searching with a new group of paintings in which figuration had suddenly re-emerged, but of a starkly grotesque and disenchanted sort, like a cross between late Goya and the cartoons of Robert Crumb. The response from his old friends, the artists of his generation, was stony silence, complete rejection. With one exception. De Kooning threw his arms around Guston, saying he understood what it was all about: freedom. It's a word that doesn't get much play in this book.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.