“Is There an ‘American Art’? Three Exhibitions Raised an Identity Issue”
This text is dedicated (with unfortunate delay due the author’s own illness) to the late painter Tom Green, an important figure within the Washington art scene and former professor at The Corcoran School of Art, who died on 3 September 2012.
It can be argued that three major museum exhibitions of late last summer into early fall collectively posed the question: is there an “American art”? I speak here of the National Gallery of Art’s comprehensive retrospective of the work of George Bellows (June 2012 – Oct. 8), The Phillips Collection’s “Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme” (a re-viewing of the artist’s prints on display June 2 – Sept. 9), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s show of Richard Diebenkorn’s famous “Ocean Park” painting series (end of June – Sept. 28). That this triad of big-league shows were up at about the same time might well have prompted any reflective viewer to ponder such a question, and what it means in terms of our country’s cultural identity as we proceed from the 20th into the 21st century.
For these are all major figures in the development of an American Modernism, as it is usually understood, and it should become clearer what that means when we look more closely at their work. Yet Modernism itself has frequently been defined as an entity inherently international in nature: a movement “forward” in the artistic domain, as it were, which took place in multiple countries at about the same time. In other words, it was a “global” phenomenon in many ways paralleling similarly wide-sweeping political, economic, and socio-cultural alterations also taking place then. This ongoing redefinition of what art is—whether comprehended as beginning in the early- or mid-19th or earlier 20th century—had to do with a notion of an aesthetic avant-garde now eclipsed by its “post-“ and “neo-“stages.
It is also relevant to remember that “American art” as a field of study is, within the discipline of art history’s evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon, and perhaps not just because the U.S. is a “younger,” more recently founded country. It was not until the 1970s that (so to speak) “pioneer” scholars such as Wanda Corn, Joshua Taylor, and John Wilmerding began to carve it out as a particular area of investigation, thus constructing and characterizing the tradition American art ostensibly represented. That phenomena such as John Copley’s colonial portraits and still-lives, late 19th-century Luminist landscape painting, heroic post-WWII Abstract Expressionism, and certainly Pop art can be seen as constituting a specific “American” visual history may seem to go without saying.
Similarly, it might seem self-evident the art produced within a country “belongs” to it in a sense: with Italian, German, French, Dutch, British, Chinese, Japanese art and so forth (with categories like “African” art more problematic in their grab-bag nature) having been recognized by the notion of “national schools” since study of visual-culture history began in the 18th century. That is, the general perception would be analogous to that of a nation’s cuisine or sense of fashion, with multiple references to its specific past tying it to a previous progression or set of practices despite changes that occur. But what if such developments begin to alter those sets of assumptions underlying them; and what if they evidently interact with or emerge out of other countries’ innovations? In fact, in academia such categorization of art according to its originating country has become passé.
Finally, maybe most significantly in the case of these dis-United States, what if a country’s very nature (from its beginning, even more so in the present) has and has always had to do with being composed of immigrants from elsewhere as well as (or therefore) the melding of many diverse demographic elements and cultural traditions? After seeing how the work of these three undeniably significant artists’ having worked in America can be looked at for some kind of answers to this definitional question as to whether that means their art is identifiably “American,” we can then in closing return to this lattermost issue of heterogeneity as it presents itself in our current field of vision as a nation. Immigration reform being on our first African-American President’s agenda makes this especially pressing.
Bellows of course goes first: not only chronologically (his career ended with his premature death in 1925, and he is generally associated with the early 20th century urban-realist Ashcan School); but also because he seems on the face of it, at least in the initial (arguably most important) phases of his oeuvre, to be a quintessential documenter of the “American scene” of his era. Perhaps best known by a general public as the painter of boxing pictures like the National Gallery’s own Club Night (1907) and Both Members of this Club (1909)—what could be more “American” than sports?—Bellows also produced poignant yet gritty portrayals of industrial America’s construction and views of New York’s underbelly: Pennsylvania Station Excavation, The Lone Tenement (both 1909).
Bellow’s American-ness as an artist appears to be even further sealed by images like Forty-Two Kids (1907), echoing Thomas Eakins swimming pictures; and the later Shore House (1911), done at Montauk, reminding one of his friend Edward Hopper’s works. But even as we look at the paintings and lithographs of his Socialism-informed exposes of substandard living conditions, lower-class crowds, and political gatherings—all themes documenting American period phenomena—one is reminded of Frenchman Honore Daumier’s caricatural manner. Typically NYC landscapes like Blue Snow, The Battery (1910) look almost as if drawn from Monet’s series of winter-white scenes; when we switch gears into his later stuff, still more non-American artistic references are at work.
The wall-text accompanying this exhibition explains Bellows saw the famous Armory Show in 1913, influencing him through his exposure to this European avant-garde contemporary art presented in the U.S. basically for the first time. However, well before that, the Ash Can group’s approach to urban and lower class themes was analogous to the French Realism that had arisen much before that, with the oeuvres of Gustave
Courbet and others in the mid-19th century. The depiction of characteristic “types” (like Bellows’ Paddy Flanigan of 1908) was a facet of Manet’s work in the 1860s, while we are informed that the pose of the former’s 1909 portrait Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall (model surprisingly identified given her lack of clothes) is drawn from the latter’s infamous Luncheon on the Grass (1863). In addition to the early images already mentioned, Bellows’ depiction of industrial phenomena in an atmospheric way that “highlights the role of the machine… their presence… sometimes indicated only by puffs of white steam” calls to mind icons of French Impressionism. His critical approach to the subject of WWI brutality borrows from German Expressionism’s visual language.
These are not just the pentimenti of art history that echo through any artist’s work but rather evidence of this American’s operating within traditions and drawing on ideas adapted from art produced in other countries: or, making pictures which would otherwise not be possible. If we then turn to the prints of Jasper Johns shown at The Phillips, done throughout his career (1960 to 2011, this medium constituting a crucial part of his output), such derivational questions pose themselves with respect to another phase of international Modernism. That Johns comes next makes sense because his seminal work was produced from the late 1950s through 60s, presaging then participating in Pop’s development.
Although we may think of that Pop artistic movement as being quintessentially American, not only were there European versions of it (in France, Germany, Italy and Britain for example); but here a later phase of the “foreign” international avant-garde was a crucial precursor, epitomized by the work of Marcel Duchamp. It was a conceptual strand, involving the manipulation of everyday objects and images turned into or redefined as art: that this presumption underlies Johns’ whole late 50’s into 1960s production is readily demonstrable, even to the point of mimicry (references acknowledging that debt and the artist’s citing it overtly). Such practices and the sardonic, encoded humor accompanying them are wholly Duchampian; and it runs through Johns’ works despite their “American” themes.
In the multiples department, this is no less the case. Let us consider for instance the first three major “motifs” repeated in variation in his earliest prints: flags, targets, and primary numbers. Self-evidently the flags are American; given the current debate about gun control in this country the targets (used for shooting practice) seem obviously so as well; and the numbers counting in sequence are what any schoolchild learns first here (and seem appropriate given our “native” preoccupation with money, as bills would be counted). But that is not as crucial as the process Johns employs: he takes recognizable ordinary things or objects and replicates them (in variation) as art, thereby shaking out their varied possible implications if contemplated (like a target looking back at us as if an eye’s iris).
The artist ironically “explains” his choice and re-deployment of the recognizably ordinary thus: claiming its image “came to him in a dream” (a send-up of artistic inspiration if ever there was one), Johns said of such a theme “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets—things the mind already knows.” (1954) But it does not know them as art, which they thereby become, a transformation that similarly fascinated Duchamp and the Surrealist avant-garde: the former thus manipulating objects including bottle-dryers, coat-racks, pre-painted commercial signs and urinals; while the latter pried beneath the familiar recognizable to uncover its psychological underpinnings or sexual implications.
Without such a practice-precedent, which Johns continues and further develops, he would have had to invent it (but did not); yet like Andy Warhol’s silkscreens and paintings of dollars, celebrities, and Campbell’s soup cans (or to reference another major American Pop artist’s current retrospective at the National Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein’s use of cartoon imagery and Ben-Day dots employed in early cheap image-reproduction), such manipulation is of Americana. And one aspect missed by The Post’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, also perhaps to be considered characteristically “American” (in that everyone here has “come out” and there is an overtly gay culture) and has been thematized in the scholarly writing about Johns is his homosexuality: his targets-morphing-into-eyes are about “cruising.”
Probably one of the most specifically Duchampian pieces here is the print No (1969), with the word appearing to hang from a wire that is an illusion and in its top left an outline of Duchamp’s ironically salacious Female Fig Leaf (a 1950 casting in lead made from a woman’s vulva, as if to be inserted into/onto one). The accompanying object label tells us that “Johns first encountered Duchamp’s work in the 1950s at the Philadelphia Museum of Art [, where the famous former Arensberg Collection resides]. He has been inspired…”: a fortuitous interface at just the right moment. Finally, the best example of this Johnsian combination of typically American things and Duchampian practice here is Bread (1969), where a slice of Wonderbread is recreated in the cast lead medium both employed.
What this means or where we have arrived via the preceding two presentations of Bellows’ and Johns’ work becomes yet more evident when we take on Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series of paintings and works on paper dating from 1965 to 1985, displayed in The Corcoran’s beautifully lit environment. Here we have again to do with a “subject” inextricably linked to this country: the uniquely “American” landscape of southern California, specifically its coast (no surprise, since Diebenkorn’s work was always divided up into series linked with places). Certainly these pictures’ palette, large scale, and architectonic structuring relate to the surroundings within which they were created; though abstract, they clearly also reference architecture and the succulent coastal land near Los Angeles.
Yet struck by the comparative illustrations punctuating The Corcoran’s beautifully produced catalogue (this show originated at the Orange County Museum), one begins to have that familiar feeling. Not only are these images in dialogue with some kinds of American art of their time not foregrounded in its detailed text, but they seem so related to or descendant from that of one of France’s most famous Modernist artists—Henri Matisse—that his shadow seems palpably present in many of them. This is so true that one tangible example will suffice: just look at Diebenkorn’s Studio Window—Ocean Park (1970) together with Matisse’s remarkably prescient almost-Minimalist painting French Window at Collioure (1914, painted when the artist had gone south to escape WWI’s carnage, though he thought of his pictures at that time as analogous to being in the trenches too).
It is the colors and structuring of Diebenkorn’s images which seem so linked to the stringent Matisse of those wartime years, both hovering between a soft geometric abstraction and memories or hints of figuration. Sarah Bancroft also remarks in her Corcoran catalogue essay how unusual it is a painter should begin as an abstract artist, return to figurative work and then turn to abstraction again in the latter part of his career, as Diebenkorn did. Yet this calls up Matisse’s path from early figuration, followed by the quasi-abstract works of 1914-19, after which he moved to Nice to produce representational pictures, then toward the end of his life turning to reality-based abstraction with his “Cut-Outs.” Who cannot recall photographs of the bed-ridden octogenarian artist cutting gouache-painted paper with scissors, then collaging their abstracted shapes?
In other words, without Matisse there could have been no Diebenkorn, or not of the “Ocean Park” series variety for which he is most well-known and worked on for 20 years. Other comparative reproductions in the Corcoran’s catalogue—of Cezannes, Mondrians, and so forth—remind us that yet other non-American fundamental artistic debts are owed here. It is not that Bancroft and Susan Landauer do not speak of these issues, but rather their referencing them seems not to acknowledge the extent to which Diebenkorn is saturated with a Matissian visual legacy; and we are told the California artist was an assiduous student of current and historical art, via books, magazines, exhibitions and travel. It is also unavoidable not to think of the contemporaneous Color Field painting being done by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Barnett Newman and others during the 70s.
What have we learned in examining these three exhibitions of work by major 20th-century American artists is they are all even-explicitly “coming out of” visual-cultural precedents from other countries. Certainly, though, in drawing on such sources they “do” something with them that could perhaps not have taken place in those forerunners’ countries of origin. These derivational/transformational issues are of course dealt with in the texts accompanying these shows, but they are not really thematized as constituting a larger definitional query (as I have). And of course, such over-arching questions have been posed in the literature on American art: interestingly enough, in almost every publication relating to it, as if their authors felt themselves somehow obligated to verify its underlying validity.
But to return to the framing set-up with which we began, more importantly, what does this conundrum as to the specific” national” character of American art have to contribute to one of the central self-definitional factors influencing our own sense of ourselves as part of an “America”? For surely the immigrants originally as well as more recently composing it, especially given their ongoing cultivation of cultural practices and ties to their countries of origin (thus becoming “hybrids” combining both), pose an analogy to the nature of “American art.” Both evidently incorporate and uniquely synthesize those elements; yet the ultimate question seems to remain, given the ever-increasingly accelerated and diverse waves of immigration, to what extent the resulting “whole” remains a cohesive entity that understands itself as sharing a specific integrated national identity. This appears to me to be an issue illuminated in the end by what is meant by “American art.”