PRINT Summer 1985


The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968–1981

The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968–1981.

By Corinne Robins, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, 246 pp., 88 black and white photographs, 8 color plates.

In the first chapter of her earnest march through 14 recent years of American art production, Corinne Robins quotes Kim Levin in 1979: “The 1970s has not been just another decade. Something did happen, something so momentous that it was ignored in disbelief: modernity had gone out of style.” The mechanics of the death of Modernism are indeed an interesting topic, and a rigorous, insightful discussion that explored the idea in relationship to the continuous artistic fragmentation of Modernism and post-Modernism would be a welcome addition to criticism.

Unfortunately, in this book rigor and insight are in short supply. Robins skirts analysis by leaning heavily on description, on recitations of skeins of facts that replace reasoning with reportage. It is as if she hoped that if enough descriptive historical detail were piled up it would create self-evident significance. Thus The Pluralist Era slogs through the emergence of SoHo. It gives us the curricula vitae of representative process, conceptual, Minimalist, earthwork, superrealist, “new image,” and pattern and decoration artists. It surveys the struggles of women and minority artists—mainly by documenting who showed where, what they showed, and what it all was made out of. (To call the level of thought in the chapter “Art and Politics” superficial is to compliment it. There is no serious challenge here to what could be called “received clichés.”) Similar surface documentation takes care of video art, performance, photography, and abstraction. In the final chapter the author turns to Chuck Close to sum things up: “The ’70s was a period nobody much liked, but the artists.” The reason, claims the author, “may be that the 1970s offered alternatives rather than final answers in a way that was stimulating and provocative but possibly not so satisfying in that it demanded that the audience do its own thinking and make its own choices.” This tepid conclusion not only hedges everything but also could be applied to every decade of art history in the 20th century, if not the 19th!

Why is this once-over-lightly treatment so disturbing? First, this effort has all the unmistakable earmarks of a textbook. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Harper & Row would have published it unless they were convinced it could serve the high-school and college market. Its generalizing mode has little appeal to those who might read it unassigned. As a textbook it may serve as a handy compendium of documentation. But it provides little or no deeper stimulus. The book’s color illustrations are peculiarly chosen, sparse, and put in one signature. What ultimately disappoints is that such pedestrian treatment of a vigorous, confusing, and fascinating epoch prevents, or delays by another five years, publication of a better book by a trade publisher.

Alexandra Anderson