Helen Gardner’s benevolently dictatorial Art through the Ages was published in 1926, and remained the pre-eminent survey for American undergraduates until 1962, when H.W. Janson’s History of Art joined it on introductory syllabuses. Now in its 12th edition, Gardner has been revised and updated without its pantheon of geniuses being much dislodged, while Janson, in its seventh edition, makes more concessions to newfangled notions like feminism and deconstruction. But both are encyclopedic tomes in which neophytes will find the chronology of stylistic periods unfolding like the geological record: Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous; Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism to Futurism to Constructivism to Expressionism to Dada to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism to Pop to Conceptualism. Students might wonder at this perfect taxonomy, or at the one or two textbook chapters that purport to summarise the art of Africa, India, China, Japan, the Americas, the Pacific and Paleolithic humans before getting back to Athens and Rome, to Florence, Bruges, Paris and New York. If the class is labelled ‘Art since 1945’, the teleological march will begin in medias res: aesthetic concerns and world-historical events predating the war will be lost in the primordial soup and only a few giant patriarchs will remain: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian – and Duchamp perhaps. The survey will end in a hodgepodge of examples tautologically labelled ‘contemporary’.
Students on advanced courses will find this story embellished rather than transformed, with 20th-century concerns added as detail: the role of photography, say, or the impact of psychoanalysis; a semester might be spent comparing the formalist Modernism of colour-fields and industrial materials to the commodity Modernism of automobiles and television. New names will appear: Clement Greenberg, Alfred Barr, Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon. All but the stodgiest departments – though this exempts many – will make gestures towards what has for the last thirty years been referred to, again tautologically, as ‘Theory’. Somewhere along the line, art history majors with professors worth their salt will encounter, severally or federated, the critics Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss.
This quartet have been working together since the 1970s, and are currently co-editors of the journal October. Founded in 1976 and subtitled ‘Art/Theory/Criticism/Politics’, October introduced a generation of academics to an art history radically more complex than the fables of Gardner and Janson, or the connoisseurship on which they were based. Formalist criticism collides in October with Althusserian Marxism, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, poststructuralist linguistics, film theory, queer theory and institutional critique. In the course of its re-examination of the historical avant-garde, the journal has brought new attention to Surrealists who rebelled against their controlling impresario, André Breton: Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris. It has pondered the theory of the sign, foregrounded photography and helped to install Peter Bürger’s 1974 essay ‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’ (translated into English in 1984) as a founding text of alternative cultural criticism. October’s influence on arts professionals has been powerful and lasting, though the editors in feistily refusing their own teachers’ canonical Modernism have retained a surprising amount of the earlier generation’s confidence in magisterial pronouncements and ideological prerogative.
That the stubbornly traditional Janson and Gardner and the already eminent October – despite their profound opposition – both currently represent art-historical authority is symptomatic of changes in the field since the 1960s. The once-upstart October-ites are now professors with CVs as long as their arms, and their own acolytes have become teachers, writers and curators. Nevertheless, their publications are still met with howls of conservative disapproval from the heirs of Greenberg et al. (The fact that Krauss is an apostate to this tradition, having been a Greenbergian in her youth, tends to earn her the shrillest condemnations.) At the same time, the US culture wars of the 1990s have hardened into an unembarrassed official policing – and defunding – of any activity that dares suggest a role for art beyond the prettifying of what the mandarins are pleased to call ‘mainstream values’.
Out of this strange situation comes Art since 1900. Foster, Krauss, Bois and Buchloh – the ‘Gang of Four’, as they are called in one puckish blog – have published a long textbook aiming to rewrite the history of 20th-century art, to unsettle or refine the inherited account of big names and seminal works, and to incorporate psychoanalysis, structuralism, poststructuralism and historical materialism into the art-historical conversation. In other words, they are bringing October-ish perspectives into the survey market. To do this, they have developed a number of authorial and graphic strategies, some of which succeed superbly, and some of which are so awkward that one wonders if the book was comprehensively edited. There is no doubt that Art since 1900 will be invaluable to both students and professionals; no question it represents a monumental effort of scholarship. That it falls short of creating a unified-theory-of-everything, is inevitable, even desirable.
The book’s structure is the key both to its successes and its failures. Rejecting a majestic periodicity, it has short year-by-year chapters, grouped into decade-long sections. Each chapter focuses on a noteworthy event, but is also multiply cross-referenced. 1907: Picasso finishes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (see Freud; see Primitivism); 1935: Benjamin drafts ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (see Duchamp; see Warhol); 1969: the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ surveys the development of post-Minimalism (see Duchamp; see Smithson); 1998: large-scale video-projection emerges as a medium (see Benjamin; see Vito Acconci and Nam June Paik). With a few exceptions, all the entries are credited to one of the four authors, each of whom also contributes an introduction outlining the importance of a pet theoretical approach: Foster on psychoanalysis; Buchloh on materialist social history; Bois on structuralist formalism; Krauss on poststructuralism. The year-by-year format breaks at 1945 for a roundtable on mid-century art criticism; another roundtable follows the last entry, for 2003. Sidebars give background on everything from the Works Progress Administration to Maurice Merleau-Ponty; a short ‘Further Reading’ list is appended to each chapter and supplemented by a copious bibliography at the end. There is a (quite rarified) glossary, and a wealth of admirably colour-true illustrations.
Foster – who is listed as lead author – acknowledges that Art since 1900 is meant as a textbook, but even the boldest teacher will have difficulty guiding non-specialists through it as an unsupplemented survey. Familiar critical terms – ‘memento mori’, ‘personification’ – are carefully defined. But readers are expected to digest political references – to, say, the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg, the student uprisings of May 1968, and the deaths of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof – entirely without contextual comment. Here and there we are told that a work is ‘extraordinary’ or ‘a breakthrough’ without being allowed to see it, as if Gardner or Janson, or Google, can be trusted to fill in the blanks. Daunting phrases like ‘phenomenological space’ and ‘gaze-as-objet-a’ are explained eventually, if one reads from cover to cover, but the dipper-in will be at a loss to find the buried glosses, even though the cross-referenced, short-entry format is meant to facilitate just such dipping-in.
Despite the textbook label, Art since 1900 is a book to be read through, and only sustained engagement can do justice to the sweep of such a minutely researched, elaborately theorised and multivocal text. The perfect reader, it would seem, must be already well informed about 20th-century avant-gardes – political and philosophical as well as artistic – but eager to revisit his or her knowledge, to adjust and expand a picture of a past that is not yet incontrovertibly defined. What will such a reader find? A great deal. The familiar conception of Modernism as a (flawed) progress towards ever more purified abstraction and opticality is not debunked in Art since 1900, but provocatively nuanced. Bois’s discussions, in particular, of the studio research undertaken by Matisse and Mondrian, and later by Barnett Newman, in their separate journeys towards abstraction capture a thrilling sense of ambition and discovery. He is also good on the reinstatement of Russian Productivism and Constructivism as central episodes in the development of Modernist looking. Krauss’s entries on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Tu m’ (1918) revisit arguments she has made elsewhere, but no matter; they are masterful. Buchloh then takes up the tale with El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Dada photo-collage, and it is bracing to re-encounter this work, which was passionately engaged in creating artistic responses to the trauma of the First World War, the rise of totalitarianism and the onrush of technological modernisation. The authors get schoolmarmish in discussing the widespread rappel à l’ordre, or return to figuration, following the war – a shift away from the progressive destructuring of representation that they read as craven. Still, Buchloh, in an inspired chapter on 1934, gives serious consideration to Soviet Socialist Realism as a repressed school of modern thought.
Post-1945, examination of the ‘neo-avant-garde’ reframes assumptions about the all-over painted surface and the grid – clichés of canonical Modernism – by placing them in the context of concurrent investigations of montage, semiotics, hybridity and Minimal-Conceptual deskilling. The book’s analysis of the readymade as a generalised paradigm is sustained and compelling (Krauss, for example, floats the wild yet appealing idea that Alfred Stieglitz, circa 1927, was photographing clouds as ‘readymade’ objects). A now common stereotype is corrected via Krauss and Foster’s insistence that Minimalism is less about macho iconoclasts igniting their welding torches than about thoughtful intervention in perceptual experience; and Foster, in particular, is thorough and precise in his comparison of the various feminisms staked out by Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, Carolee Schneemann and Mary Kelly. Buchloh’s discussions of German photography from August Sander to Andreas Gursky are fascinating, and he pays welcome heed to Valie Export and Martha Rosler. It is also Buchloh who presides over the authors’ shared reflection on another recurring October theme, the pernicious ‘spectacularisation’ of 20th-century culture and the concomitant ‘demise of the bourgeois public sphere’ – although frustratingly, for those who have not been reading Jürgen Habermas or T.J. Clark recently, no one unpacks this last, pregnant phrase. As a touchstone text for such arguments, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) emerges, alongside Bürger’s, as another canonical source in 20th-century cultural criticism.
It is one of Modernism’s oldest chestnuts that Modernism itself can be understood as a pair of doppelgangers. On the one hand it is the servant of a global monoculture that crushes dissent and distracts us with bewildering dazzle; on the other a wily resister, exerting a (possibly collective) will to destabilise domination and speak a pure critique. Here, again, the authors do not debunk received wisdom so much as restore its precision and subtlety. They work both sides of the paradigm, and one of the pleasures of Art since 1900 is tracking the fundamental high/low kinship between entries as apparently disparate as Bois on Piet Mondrian and Foster on Damien Hirst, or Krauss on Picasso’s Demoiselles and Buchloh on Harper’s Bazaar.
Bois argues, for example, that Mondrian’s research into Cubism led to what, in a deliberate and effective anachronism, he calls the ‘digitalisation’ of abstraction: the reduction of the painted surface to opposing horizontal and vertical units. The ‘plus/minus’ forms of Mondrian’s ‘Pier and Ocean’ paintings of the 1910s, and their subsequent elaboration in icons such as Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943), demonstrate the painter’s dictum that ‘each element is determined by its contrary.’ Bois observes that this dialectic ‘transcoding’ of the visible world ‘stems directly from Hegel’. But it is also fascinating in the context of cybernetics and the power of the digital system as a master-trope of the information age. After this blast of excitement from 1917, it’s interesting to turn to Foster’s tart summation of a succès de scandale like Hirst’s sliced pig in formaldehyde (1996) or Jeff Koons’s ironico-kitsch porn from the early 1990s. Both artists, Foster observes, ‘presented … hype as the contemporary substitute for artistic aura’, and their ‘outraged opponents played … right into their hands, for together they produced a packaged simulacrum of artistic provocation.’ Mondrian, in other words, fundamentally subverts established norms as to what makes a work of art, but does so quietly, while Hirst and Koons peddle showing-off as ersatz creative risk.
Bois’s enthusiasm and Foster’s acerbity are both salutary. But, crucially, the white hat/black hat split between innovation and retrenchment can also blur. Two instances of interpretative grey might be seen in the juxtaposition of 1907 with 1959 – high Modernist painting as compared to low Modernist salesmanship. Krauss, in her entry, details the history of Picasso’s most famous painting – from obscure experiment to art-critical Rosetta Stone and blue-chip museum asset – while Buchloh meditates on the ways in which Russian avant-garde design helped invent postwar American fashion photography. After years lingering in Picasso’s studio, Krauss tells us, Demoiselles was bought, cheap, by the collector Jacques Doucet, who then sold it in New York to the Museum of Modern Art. From there, the painting has developed into a cipher for the pleasingly marketable phenomenon of shocked good taste, ‘a herald of modern art’, ‘a purely formal figure composition’, a Freudian ‘primal scene’, and, in Leo Steinberg’s piquant phrase, a ‘Philosophical Brothel’. Krauss explores these layers of critical assimilation without undercutting the audacity of Picasso’s achievement. Buchloh, for his part, manages a similar delicacy in discussing the Russian designer Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), who moved to New York in 1930, armed with nostalgia for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and ready, as he unselfconsciously confessed, to ‘perceive and preconceive the tastes, aspirations and habits of the consumer-spectator and the mob’. Brodovitch introduced American magazines to cinematic close-ups and montage, and pilfered from El Lissitzky and Rodchenko in order to sell Dior. Through his students Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, he also helped to engineer the retro-fitting of ‘fine’ art with the styles and concerns of advertising.
All this is hardly to scratch the surface of Art since 1900 and its proliferation of sub-narratives. Crafting a book like this is a bit like curating a biennial and, insofar as every definite choice precludes other possibilities, every reader will have wanted to do it differently. A few of my own complaints: Krauss has written beautifully (in Bachelors, 1999) about the self-portrait photography of the Surrealist Claude Cahun; in a book already in danger of scanting women artists active before the 1960s, the omission of Cahun is striking. It is odd, too, given the book’s pervasive interest in the impact of Freudianism on the arts, that the sidebar on Bloomsbury neglects to mention that it was the Hogarth Press that sponsored James Strachey’s translation of Freud, beginning in 1924. Gertrude Stein receives her own sidebar, only to be marginalised as a collector of Picassos, with no mention of her own groundbreaking experiments in literary genre and poetics.
The most serious problem, however, is the authors’ treatment of non-Western artists and artists of colour prior to the explosion of politically engaged or ‘identity-based’ art in the early 1990s. From 1900 to 1989, just three chapters focus on non-white artists or art events in non-white contexts. One is Bois’s instructive summation of Gutai in Japan and the Neo-Concrete movement in Brazil. The others are a 1933 entry dealing with the Mexican muralists, and one for 1943 addressing the Harlem Renaissance. It makes sense to fix consideration of the muralists around the scandal of Diego Rivera’s portrait of Lenin at the Rockefeller Center in New York. But there is no thematic or chronological reason to ghettoise the Harlem Renaissance into one chapter. Publication of Alain Locke’s The New Negro and Langston Hughes’s participation in the Crisis magazine could have had their own entry around 1925; this was when James Van Der Zee began taking photographs of middle-class and ‘high society’ Harlem residents, and Aaron Douglas was making prints and paintings. Not only that, but Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, two of the most distinguished African American painters, lived until 1988 and 2000 respectively; landmark retrospectives were held for Bearden at MoMA in 1971, and Lawrence at the Whitney in 1974. Were the writers not sufficiently interested in these artists to attend to such details? Presumably not, for it turns out that the Harlem Renaissance chapter, like the one on the Mexican muralists, was written by Amy Dempsey. Dempsey is the author of Styles, Schools and Movements: The Essential Encyclopedic Guide to Modern Art (2002); she is also a former student of Rosalind Krauss. But only the most inquisitive would be likely to discover this, because Art since 1900 so de-emphasises the presence of the hired gun that the authors identify her by full name only on the colophon page and offer no historiographic rationale for her participation. It’s as if they were uneasy about their lapses – which they should be.
Once one’s doubts have been aroused, other omissions begin to nag. Where, in all the exacting examination of photography as indexical sign, as pop-cultural-yet-avant-gardist tool, and as the medium of nationalist self-examination, is mention of Seydou Keita or Malik Sidibé, the photographers of Bamako in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s? Or of the influential South African photo-magazine Drum? Why not follow up Bois’s account of Gutai with a nod to some of the internationally celebrated artists now coming from Japan, such as Yasumasa Morimura, Takashi Murakami, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yoshitomo Nara or Mariko Mori? Korean and Chinese artists go missing; not even the post-Constructivist Russians get noticed. Two unprecedented and controversial exhibitions, both curated by Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art at the Whitney in 1993 and Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, have recently challenged the definition of ‘black’ art. Wouldn’t these have made exciting entries? Foster admits in the final roundtable that ‘none of us is in a position to comment on what projects might be emerging in other parts of the globe.’ Fine: no one can be expert in everything, though Harlem is not, after all, another country. In any case, this would have been the occasion to bring in a fully credited guest commentator.
In the end, these lacunae do not spoil Art since 1900. There is great richness here, and it’s no exaggeration to say that contemporary art history and criticism are unimaginable without its four authors: for serious students of visual culture, they are the establishment now. Their book is caught in the crises of authority and subject to the market pressures that they have done so much to interrogate, but this is probably unavoidable in an art world increasingly indistinguishable from the marketplace of art fairs and international exhibitions, and marked by a concomitant professionalisation of the artist via the influence of career-defining schools. In this milieu, as we consider the relation of past to present and begin to write about art since 2000, we should be as responsive to these four thinkers as they have been to their forebears.