PRINT February 1981


Italian Drawings 1780-1890, August Sander, Twentieth-Century European Painting, Jackson Pollock, African Furniture

Italian Drawings 1780-1890, by Roberta J.M. Olson, New York: The American Federation of Arts, and Bloomington, Ind., and London: Indiana University Press, 1980, 247 pages, 107 illustrations, including 4 in color.

In format this is an old-masterish catalogue comprising a lot of good full-page, black-and-white illustrations with an introductory essay. Frankly, I was hoping for the kind of drawing problem that I really like, where the conservative and the radical in the 19th century may not be as distinct as is assumed (and which I took up in The Burlington Magazine (April 1977) with a letter from Anthony Blunt following in June). I just can’t get all that excited with this selection, at least in reproduction, although I would like to pursue Segantini further, and Tommaso Minardi is my favorite dark horse.

August Sander: Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts: Portraitphotographien 1892-1952, photographs by August Sander, edited by Gunther Sander, text by Ulrich Keller, Munich: Schirmer-Mosel, GmbH., 1980, 431 pages, 75 illustrations.

Sander is a real problem for me, and this lavish book, plus a searching discussion with a friend who defends Sander vigorously, have helped only a little. I understand the viewpoint, the rationale, and I consider Sander’s photography to be great documentary work, but not great art; and not altogether blameless on its own terms either. I get the objectification; I see the Brechtian aspect, and I can imagine what Lukács would have liked. Nevertheless, central questions remain for me unanswered, such as the relation between the individual and the type, and what the photographer’s artistic personality is really like. At times I am touched, but more often I find weirdly monadic humanoids seen through a mercilessly prying eye—or else the opposite, sets of types recorded by a robot.

Just what is there to learn? I know Sander was on the “right” side, but I’m not sure I’d like him much, either: I don’t like Sander’s systematic “mapping” scheme for classifying human beings—who, by the way, so often remain anonymous, categorized specimens. Here, with such sitters, Sander is at least better than Arbus who, to the delight of the vulgar, confuses the deformed with the perverse, and the perverse with the subversive, but I am still not satisfied. This is a formidable book, not least because Keller shows the relevance of Neue Sachlichkeit painting to Sander’s figural approach. Yet I still see more (fruitless) paradox than (creative) contradiction, and tend to spend much more enthusiasm on Sander’s Rhine landscapes (see Wolfgang Kemp’s, August Sander: Rheinlandschaften: Photographien 1929–1946, published by Schirmer-Mosel in 1975). This cannot be simply because some of them extend Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape ideas, either. Actually, the way Sander’s sitters presume an intimate gaze on the spectator’s part may also be traced back to German Romanticism, if one thinks, for example, of the portrait etchings of Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790–1863). With the same (and, pictorially, equally extraneous) horrors in the air, at least in the Rhine landscapes we behold something admirably German—including the Romantic lyricism toward nature—seen with positive affection.

Twentieth-Century European Painting, by Ann-Marie Cutul, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980, 520 pages.

A bibliography like this one is a part of the very “information explosion” that it aims to mitigate. This is an annotated survey of writings by artists and of books and exhibition catalogues about them. One drawback is that the look of computerized definitiveness in this kind of bibliography belies an almost instant obsolescence: ironically, just as the Xerox returns us to manuscript culture, and the microfilm to scrolls, it requires a gung-ho, old-fashioned librarian to keep a book like this up-to-date. Furthermore, guides like this tend to discount the periodical literature, which in the field of art is where the action is and which rarely works its way into serious books, especially with publishing the way it is nowadays.

Jackson Pollock: Drawing Into Painting, by Bernice Rose, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, 96 pages, 79 illustrations, including 6 color plates.

One would expect Bernice Rose’s Jackson Pollock: Drawing Into Painting to be more rewarding because it is a revision of her admirable Jackson Pollock: Works on Paper, published in 1969. Instead of the informal, caption-and-plate set up and brief introductory essay of the earlier volume, the new book features only an essay, now horrendously overwritten. Rose seems to start off confused as if she were trying to take everybody’s advice into consideration at once. One even gets the feeling that she is saying the opposite of what she really means, which is that, for Pollock, painting turned into drawing. No wonder every time Rose comes up for air she rehearses the chronology all over again. Some of the new material is good, but there are too many uncritical remarks; for example, certain statements Rose makes about color and the nature of drawing leave no room for, say, the two-toned drawings of Watteau (I know, I know: they would get refiled under painterliness, but they are also made out of line and, in any case, are supreme examples of Western drawing). Likewise, a remark early on about the essential planarity (yawn) of drawing leaves no room at all for Cézanne, so Rose has to compensate later with a separate idea about Cézanne and Van Gogh (in a remark on the 20th century). The whole essay is as tangled up as this is, which obscures the good ideas that Rose does have. The best parts are those in which the author goes off on her own, as when she comments interestingly, drawing on various sources, in a creative and inquiring spirit, on the possible roots of Pollock’s drip technique in Siqueiros and the Mexican mural tradition, Masson and the Surrealists, Ernst and also Hofmann,and when she points out the importance of the printmaker Stanley William Hayter. Rose keeps plugging Pollock’s “best” period, 1947–50, during which, oddly enough for her purposes, he apparently stopped drawing. Furthermore, Rose makes a tantalizing remark, in parentheses, about a new kind of figuration which Pollock was inventing when he died, but she shows nothing at all from the last four years (1953–56) of the artist’s life. An issue I had hoped the new book would take up is that of the numerals which are clearly evident in some Pollock drawings. I myself bought Rose’s earlier book largely because of my fascination with the “47” appearing in an untitled 1943 collage (which also includes several other less obvious numeral forms) from the Strater collection, which was illustrated there; now, in the new book, I see an untitled 1951 drawing (in the O’Connor and Thaw catalogue raisonné, no. 812) with “46” clearly drawn in. What does this mean?

African Furniture and Household Objects, by Roy Sieber, New York: The American Federation of Arts and Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1980, 279 pages, 345 illustrations, including 20 in color and two maps.

I don’t know why books like this shy away, as they so often do, from any artistic consideration. They often seem motivated by definite formal tastes but written by people incapable of, or uninterested in, articulating that very appeal. Instead, anthropology is purveyed as a kind of positivist substitute for esthetic analysis. A cynic might suppose that the inertness of the text typically found in this kind of book suits both (a) those who merely want to escape harmlessly into reveries about pre-industrial culture, and, just as well, (b) those who just want a book, any book, that seems more dignified than an auction catalogue. I do like the kind of material which Sieber presents, but the book, as a book, has, except for its attractive color and black-and-white illustrations, nothing to do with art.

Joseph Masheck