PRINT March 1968


American Art Since 1900

Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900, illus., Praeger.

In trying to evaluate Barbara Rose’s book, American Art Since 1900, one thing to keep in mind is that the book was written for the Praeger World of Art series. These books are not addressed to a public of any special seriousness and they are not intended to be very closely read. It is unfair to expect very much of them, and since they usually corroborate this modest view I doubt if Miss Rose’s book would have been reviewed at all in this magazine if she were not a regular contributor to it. Certainly it is a routine production, but my opinion is that it is more routine than such books need to be, and since I shall criticize it I should say at the outset that I know what it was intended to be and that my criteria have been such as I think appropriate for a book of this sort, not for something more ambitious. There are some popular books, like John Shearman’s Penguin on Mannerism, from which even the specialist can learn something. Others, such as Edward Fry’s recent book on Cubism (McGraw-Hill), are profitable only to the general reader, but at least the serious student can read them without impatience or boredom. In Miss Rose’s own series, John Beckwith’s volume on early Christian art and Andrew Martin-dale’s on Gothic are perfectly decent, and no doubt there are others that I am not familiar with. In failing to come up to their level Miss Rose has lost a golden opportunity, since with the exception of Sam Hunter’s little pocketbook there is no general survey of American art of this century, and there is no good survey of it at all. This book, had it been done properly, would have been very useful.

Its great merits are sobriety and seriousness. In general, Miss Rose refuses to take the course that is so frequently followed of omitting everything that might not be grasped at once by the most uninterested or ignorant reader. Her reader might not know much, but she assumes he is interested enough to follow a no nonsense approach, and instead of omitting she tries to explain. In addition, she follows good authorities, which means principally Milton Brown for the earlier chapters of her book and Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried for the later. Her conscientiousness in trying to present their views is often charming in its naive earnestness: “The term ‘post-painterly,’ as defined by Greenberg, implies that the traditional opposition of linear to painterly has been superseded by an opposition of tactile to optical. According to this interpretation, tactile painting, which stresses the sculptural qualities of modeling and value contrasts, is less suited to the present development of painting than optical painting . . . This argument presumes that the artist working in a particular medium should strive for a more explicit statement of the properties that exclusively belong to that medium . . . According to this argument, visual art will be stripped of all extravisual meaning . . .” At the same time, one can see one of the faults that vitiates her patient explanations: Miss Rose has a mind that is relentlessly banal. It is remarkable how little excitement she is able to generate in discussing her material. Sometimes her ability to reduce the insights of others to commonplaces is merely distressing, but it can serve a more positive purpose: when she writes, “Because the successive veils of paint sink into the raw canvas and become identified with it, foreground and background are one,” one knows from the thud of the sentence as it falls on its face that this particular idea has outlived its time, and in this way Miss Rose’s conscientiousness performs at least a hygienic function.

It can be said as a generality that the merit of her seriousness is more a merit of character than of mind: her character inclined her to write a book in which she would use her mind. That she got no better results is not for lack of trying. Another merit of her book is also one of character; it is her scrupulousness and sense of measure. This is most striking, of course, in the chapter on developments “After Abstract Expressionism,” where despite the inevitable, and presumably very strong intellectual and personal sympathies Miss Rose must have for certain artists at the expense of others, everything is given its due. I thought that the two paragraphs on Stella show perhaps a trace of animation, which certainly most of the book does not, but if only for this reason it was all to the good; and here as always in the book, she seems to have decided in advance what degree of prominence it would be right to give each artist in a just presentation of the material, and she stays within her limit.

This sense of perspective leads to some welcome consequences. Miss Rose has harsh words to say about the mass media, with their “appetites . . . for material carrying the cachet of culture, which may be digested and spewed back at a mass literate public more eager for gossip and sensation than for art itself”; and she notes their unfortunate habit of consecrating a style just when, having made its contribution, it begins to decline. It is partly her awareness of what a “field day” the media can have in “ballyhooing” art styles in “the present ‘culture boom’” that conditions her treatment of Abstract Expressionism. She analyzes (less inadequately than is usually the case with the analyses in this book) its inherent “limitations and contradictions,” especially those of de Kooning, whose style she does not hesitate to call the basis of a “new Academy”; and she summarizes the reason for the color field painters’ fundamental dislike of it: its “lack of clarity” that seemed a “sign of a lack of pictorial or emotional conviction,” its “struggle and anxiety (that) might be as easily simulated as felt . . . stylistic effects that could be manufactured at will; the high purpose (that seemed) mere rhetoric . . . inflated or bathetic, and the latest phase of the movement chaotic, academic or mannered.” Pop is treated more briefly—with the exception of Rauschenberg and Johns, if they are Pop, it is scarcely discussed—but Miss Rose remarks that in Warhol “the American avant-garde may presume to have its own Salvador Dalí, a sign both of its maturity and its decadence”; and she concludes that, “In general, the amount of publicity (Pop) has received, both pro and con, is entirely out of proportion to its importance.” When she says, “It has been rejected by the most respected critics of the older generation,” one realizes how final that condemnation must be for such a respectfully derivative mind as Miss Rose’s. It is good to find these views stated so clearly in a book intended for wide distribution.

The points I have been discussing are secondary, of course: it is hard to address oneself to the “core” of a book that aims (and rightly so) to be only a manual survey of very varied material. Insofar as Miss Rose thinks that the history of American painting since 1900 yields a thesis, her story concerns its gradual assimilation of and then liberation from European painting and the formation of an authentic avant-garde over here. It is interesting to see how she presents the avant-garde from the very beginning; I think her manner of doing it has a lot to do with her personal position in regard to what is being painted today. For Miss Rose, the Ashcan School’s break with the academy “was not an esthetic one, as the French avant garde protest had been”; it was “carried out for the sake of democracy in art rather than in the name of art for art’s sake . . . against rules and regulations in general,” and for this reason Henri and his friends cannot be thought to have formed a genuine avant garde. To me it appears that the similarity between their position and what had occurred in France is greater than Miss Rose says it is, and I suspect that if she had departed from her usual habit of thinking in terms of broad ideologies and had considered the specifics of the situation, viewing it in a limited way, she would then have been better able to grasp its broader aspects. Here as in France there was more than one academic style, but one of our academic styles had its counterpart in France in the subject matter and style we call neoclassical. Later in her book, Miss Rose acknowledges this, writing, for example, of “the hollow Neoclassicism that The Eight had rejected.” It was, as Miss Rose says, a question of democracy, but it was equally a question of esthetics, and this was so in both countries: the mythological subjects of the French academic Neoclassicists, with their connotations of an aristocratic ideal, had as their counterpart here the sublimated maidens of Thayer or Blashfield, which were often of an allegorical nature, and the preference of Henri and his circle for tenements, restaurants and barges corresponds to Courbet’s interest in country peasants and Manet’s in urban bourgeois; so that if the French “protest” against the academy was avant-garde, that of the Eight would also have to be.

Perhaps the reason for Miss Rose’s forgetting these simple facts—which she is certainly aware of and mentions later, when they are no longer relevant—is that the particular kind of revolt the Eight chose is not the kind she wants to acknowledge as having left its stamp on the American avant-,garde. In contrast, the energy she deploys in making the group around Stieglitz the first, if only an embryonic, avant-garde in this country is striking. For her, Stieglitz marks “the point at which modern art begins,” because with him the artist has “seceded from society, refusing to address any public larger than himself and his peers . . . Compelled by inner necessity and finding himself no longer in agreement with the values and goals of society at large, (he) retreats into himself in order to transcribe his own inner vision.” In other words, Miss Rose is doing just what She found fault with the Eight for doing: she has taken the social disharmony between advanced artists and their public so completely as her frame of reference that she forgets the artistic issues on which the disharmony is based. She makes the criterion for whether or not one is avant-garde a matter not of esthetics but of sociology, by which I mean not an attitude toward the artist by society, but by the artist toward society. For Miss Rose it is the artist, moved by the force of a romanticized individualism, who must call the shots. For society rejected Henri as much as it did Stieglitz; the difference is that Henri did not reject society, while Stieglitz did. For Miss Rose that makes Stieglitz avant-garde and Henri something else, even though he adopted Manet’s technique, and the esthetics on which it was based, entirely. Miss Rose tacitly recognizes what she is doing when she writes, “If the term avant-garde implies more than the historical moment when nineteenth-century French artists broke with the Academy, then the importance of 291 lies in its introduction of the avant-garde attitude toward art.” Where a moment ago she had compared the historical realities in America and France in order to conclude that Henri was not avant-garde, here she disregards historical fact in favor of something “more than the historical moment,” a supra-historical “attitude.” In other words, she prefers ideology to history, and she is led to do so all the more because the ideology she favors is one that, like the one in her interpretation of history, values “inner necessity” above whatever external yardsticks might exist by which to measure or control it.

What I mean to say is that Miss Rose is not an historian but an apologist; that is always the case when an ostensible historian juggles fact and ideology in this way, since it is only in this way that what supposedly happened in the past can surely be made to corroborate a certain position in the present and to justify it. In this connection, it is not accidental that the particular avant-garde ideology Miss Rose holds should favor so markedly emotive and romantic a form of “inner necessity” and “introspective individualism,” possible “only to the noble in spirit,” despite its outwardly cerebral and rigorously objective appearance; for by recognizing no limits except those of its own subjective potentialities it is of course put in a privileged position. This is also the effect of the oscillation we have seen between ideology and fact, so that the former arranges history to suit its needs when the latter will not bend. In the same way, Miss Rose’s view of the artist allows him to have the best of both worlds: he can reject society while having it accept him.

It is interesting to look at two of the many passages in her book which indicate that it is this situation Miss Rose wants to ratify by giving it an historical foundation. Discussing the incipient Dada that developed here around 1920 under the influence of Duchamp and Picabia, she concludes that “What Dada served to do in America was to crystallize the antisocial aspects of the avant-garde, but by so doing, to give the avant-garde a sense of its own identity, for better or for worse.” And earlier in her book she had closed her chapter on the Armory Show with the verdict that “For the moment, democracy could not be extended to tolerate extremism. It was safe to say that until t did, modernism would remain an artificial flower, rootless in American soil.” From the juxtaposition of these two appreciations it appears that, for Miss Rose, the avant-garde should be “antisocial,” like 291 but unlike the Ashcan School, its circle of “peers” too mandarin to see themselves as part of “society at large,” to which indeed they are a kind of challenge with their “nobility of spirit,” but at the same time should be “democratically tolerated.” Important art must be outside “the values and goals of society at large” and disdainfully above them, but at the same time society must reconcile itself to this kind of art and put a premium on it, since otherwise society will know that it is not yet mature. In this way, Miss Rose is able to create an historical situation in the image of the avant-garde today, whose contradictions are justified by an artificial historical development: the art that is supposed to be the most avant-garde can allow itself to be the most highly valued by society at large because, being by definition dissident, its honor will in any case remain pure. It is no wonder that more than once Miss Rose evokes with so much feeling and nostalgia the industrial lofts and cold water flats of another era, or, for that matter, that she writes so well, in passages from which I have quoted, about the damage done by mass media and the rhetorical pretense of Abstract Expressionism; in these passages, her style comes to life. I think the reason is that she has an important stake in them: she would like to insure a dream against success.

To talk about history in connection with an avant-garde is to bring up the matter of tradition, and so the question of the avant-garde vs. the academy merges into the question of America vs. Europe, which is the other unifying theme in Miss Rose’s narrative. The problem for her is that, as she described the situation, Stieglitz and Henri represent conflicting ideals, which is to say that the avant-garde, at the outset of her narrative, has no place in America; but she cannot permit that situation to continue, because if it does how is New York to take over the leadership of world art? Stieglitz had tried to unite American art “to the mainstream of Western art—without, however, sacrificing its distinctively American qualities. But the time was not ripe for such a fusion.” The Armory Show again tried to unite the two by effecting a large-scale introduction of democracy to the mandarin avant-garde tradition; it was a kind of blind date. The prominent display of Ryder was intended to exemplify a happy marriage of Americanism and modernism, but the attempt boomeranged, since the American works were seen to be wretched when compared with the French. I cannot recall that Miss Rose singles out any particular historical moment as the time when this fusion took place. It would seem instead that she simply abolishes the need for it, following once again a fundamental element in a certain avant-garde ideology. The crucial step in this regard was taken by the Dadaists of the twenties; we have already read a portion of Miss Rose’s argument, and here is the rest: “It was an important moment when the American artist discovered that freedom from tradition meant freedom from rules: and that if there was no tradition, at least there were no rules either . . . The acceptance of the idea that culture could be contemporary and that the breaking with old traditions did not preclude the founding of a new tradition was an important step in this coming of age.” It is interesting that her wording in this passage recalls the “tradition of the new” proposed by the principal apologist of action painting; Miss Rose finds his kind of painting deficient and no longer actual, but as I have suggested the esthetic and historical attitudes on which it depended are basically hers as much as his. They rest on a tacit analogy between the avant-garde in New York today and in Paris in the 1860s and the interpretation of the latter as having broken completely with the prevailing manner of the academy, and on the assumption that it is desirable to be avant garde, that this requires you to keep moving, and that to do so you have to break with whatever style is prevalent: what remains constant is the breaking, and this constitutes the tradition of the new. I know it sounds stupid, but that seems to be the thinking, at least as far as I can see.

From this point, the distortions and inaccuracies in Miss Rose’s account become more frequent, affecting even what are relative details. Throughout her discussion of developments from the late thirties to the late fifties there appears a radical confusion as to what maturity and independence are, whether of American painting or in general. Near the end of her chapter on the thirties she writes that American art, having “matured to a vigorous adolescence, (was) prepared at last to challenge its parent for independence.” This need not mean that it would repudiate all European elements, of course, but that is how Miss Rose tends to consider it, since two pages farther on she says that the contributions of de Kooning and Pollock “helped to free American art permanently from its European ancestry.” One can be “independent” without being “free from one’s ancestry”—if one had no ancestors, one wouldn’t be there to be free; but for Miss Rose any art that wants to lay claim to significance cannot continue what it grew out of, it must reject it. In the same spirit, she writes that “To synthesize Cubism and Surrealism in an entirely new pictorial style became the goal of American artists.” If it synthesizes what already exists, how can it be “entirely” new? It is just a detail of wording, but it is one of those details that express a whole outlook. Gorky’s opening “the limited, shallow space of late Cubism into an infinite atmospheric continuum . . . constitutes the first major American contribution to world art,” although Tanguy, Dalí, Masson and many other Surrealists had already done as much; and it is not necessary to consider whether Gorky or Matta came first, in one of those absurd psuedo-historical arguments that come up so often when sensitive elements in the New York achievement are discussed, since both had ample precedent. Or, “Since there is no longer any distinction between figure and ground,” Pollock’s drip paintings represent “the first significant change in pictorial space since Cubism.” Actually, some very minor painters had already been there: what is the figure and what the ground in the décalcomanies of Dominguez, for example? Miss Rose’s unconscious-on-purpose failure to think clearly and to see historical filiations, which frequently leads in the end to a denial of historicity altogether, enables her to present postwar American painting in the light in which she wishes it to be seen. As I said, she is nothing if not scrupulous, and to my mind it is touching to see how hard she tries to follow an historical approach; but all in all it is too important for her to affirm independence to allow herself to acknowledge parenthood, as it is too important to affirm originality to recognize indebtedness.

But to tell the truth, the book is far from offering to the reader considerations such as these, and when it touches on them it does so only obliquely and by inference; I have elicited them here simply because I am doing what I can to make the book and the review interesting. Miss Rose’s method is to open her chapters with the statement of some particular theme or problem that characterizes the art of the period discussed in that particular chapter, and then to give a series of analyses of the painters who were active in’ and typical of the period. These appreciations are not nearly as well connected as they ought to be, either to each other or to the general theme of the chapter. Miss Rose lacks a feeling for the organic development either of an individual artist’s work or of an artistic movement; the dialectical sense of a Greenberg is beyond her grasp, and even where she knows the material best and has the additional advantage of following him, in the chapters on the postwar period, this deficiency is felt. Taken separately, her appreciations are still poor, and in the entire book I thought only one had genuine merit—that is her few pages on Motherwell, which are really very good. One of her two paragraphs on Stella is also intelligent, and she almost succeeds in analyzing what she finds to admire in Stuart Davis and Clyfford Still. For the rest, her discussions are routine and perfunctory.

One of their more remarkable characteristics is their failure to understand pictorial problems. Miss Rose is always talking about the necessity of “maintaining the integrity of the picture plane,” for instance, but she thinks that to do this you have to eliminate effects of depth. You don’t. All maintaining the integrity of the picture plane means is that if there is a simulated recession in depth somewhere in the picture there has also to be a compensating movement back toward the surface. This is what the phrase has always meant, for the painters of Rosso’s time or of Poussin’s or Cézanne’s; with him, the diagrams of Erie Loran make this very clear. Miss Rose talks about Hofmann’s “push and pull,” but she doesn’t seem to realize that this is what he is describing. Her failure to understand such a basic principle vitiates much of her discussion not only of postwar painting but of earlier art as well, especially of styles that were influenced to any extent by Cubism, which means most of them. In addition, following the idea that in the last couple of decades the subject of paintings has increasingly come to be the problems of painting, her discussions of prewar styles are far less technical than those of postwar artists. She attempts to discuss, let us say, color field painting in technical terms; but while she recognizes the presence of Mannerist and Baroque elements in the styles of certain painters of the twenties and thirties (e.g. Benton and Curry), she does not seem to have thought of really relating their styles and in this way of seeing that a Mannerist and Baroque revival was a general phenomenon of the time, and that these labels designate complexes of pictorial procedures that might be discussed in the terms of pictorial technique. I think that the absence of technical analysis from her discussions of prewar painters reflects an inability to make such an analysis on her own, since the analyses she does give, in the postwar period, follow so closely the approaches mapped out by others.

Even when she has help from others, Miss Rose does not seem really to understand what they are talking about; at least, so I judge from the ineptness with which she applies their insights to work that they themselves have not analyzed, unless incidentally. What she can do along these lines is disconcerting. For instance, we find Avery praised for his ability “to organize masses as flat areas of pure color” and his art of “subtle, close-valued color,” when her color plate, an entirely typical piece by Avery, shows a range of values from black to white and a majority of greatly adulterated hues. It would appear that, because she has often read that many painters who are active today use pure colors or close valued colors, she supposes that any style in which color is important uses it in these ways—that a significant use of color is, by definition, close-valued and pure! In the same vein she writes that “the American Scene painters revived all the old tricks of academic illusionism long discarded by the modernists. Chiaroscuro, foreshortening, perspective, and fine detail were enlisted in the service of an art that was contemporary only in depicting contemporary settings and costumes.” It is incidental that Miss Rose has herself shown how American Scene painting was quite contemporary, being an expression of the isolationism and the last, willful affirmation of moral values that were already anomalous in the thirties; what is more important than the contradictions in her thinking is the falseness of her technical description. Because actually, these devices had never been wholly abandoned, much less abandoned long since. In the late twenties and thirties, the period she is talking about, the Russians who had discarded them were no longer painting, in only a few of the Bauhaus artists are they not to be found, and the Dutch, who had rejected them completely, numbered only two or three. In France, these devices were enjoying a vigorous revival; Picasso’s style at that time gives them a more central place than they had ever had in his work, and as Miss Rose remarks it was the Cubists who, for American painters, represented the modern movement; the Surrealist style in painting was of course always illusionistic. There is no mystery at all about these things; they are on the contrary rudimentary, but Miss Rose’s understanding of technical matters is apparently of such simplicity that she supposes all painting must have the characteristics she has seen noted in the art to which she is committed if it is to be really modern. Her writing has always been largely conceptual, but it is important for conceptual critics not to be intellectually naive and inexact, since their neglect of visual responses denies them help from that quarter. It is a minor irritant that Miss Rose compounds her misunderstandings by adopting the practice of giving certain painters as impressive a pedigree as she can, always those whose merit has traditionally been enhanced in this fashion. Thus, Avery anticipates Rothko and Gottlieb, and Matisse and Monet are also adduced as charismatic predecessors at appropriate moments; for while historical continuity has been discarded in any real sense, or rather because it has, historical antecedents can serve as guarantors in isolation from any overall historical development.

The book concludes with a chapter on sculpture and a chapter on architecture.

Jerrold Lanes