PRINT September 2005


Art Since 1900

“The first obligation of an art critic is to deliver value judgments.”
—Clement Greenberg1

FORGET EVERYTHING you know about the modern art survey––the capsule summaries of avant-garde movements, the potted versions of social-historical context, the glancing, “drive-by” descriptions of artists and works. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-modernism, Postmodernism invests the art-history textbook with an unprecedented degree of critical intensity, intellectual ambition, and interpretive difficulty. Structured as a series of more than one hundred short but fully loaded essays, the book makes a powerful argument for particularism, for learning from the texture and complexity of individual artworks, historical episodes, and critical writings rather than from synthetic overviews or even-handed exposition.

The volume’s authors—Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh— are indisputably prominent figures in modernist art history and contemporary criticism. Their writings have transformed the study of twentieth-century European and American art, in part by subjecting it to the rigors of literary, critical, and psychoanalytic theory. Each is closely identified with October, the academic journal that Krauss cofounded in 1976 as an alternative to the increasingly glossy format and market-driven concerns of art magazines (most notably this one, where Krauss had previously been an editor). Several of the essays in Art Since 1900 flow from arguments first presented in October, or from books published in the affiliated October series from the MIT Press.

Published in two formats (a single, seven-hundred-page tome and a two-part set divided into pre- and post-1945 volumes), the book will rightly be seen as an attempt to reshape the modern art curriculum at the introductory college level. Aside from its six-hundred-plus images (most of which are in color) and crisp visual design, Art Since 1900 makes surprisingly few concessions to undergraduate accessibility or “user-friendliness.” The authors refuse to dumb down their writing for the sake of a nonspecialist audience. Even the book’s end matter reflects its high degree of difficulty: A glossary of key terms includes “aporia,” “metonym,” and “polysemy,” but not “abstract,” “modern,” or “Pop.” Art Since 1900 is no October lite.

The book opens with four densely argued essays on methodology: Foster on psychoanalysis; Buchloh on the social history of art; Bois on formalism and structuralism; and Krauss on poststructuralism. Before delving into any one artistic movement or moment, readers are exposed to a range of interpretive models, from Freud’s analysis of dreams to Derrida’s deconstruction of language. From its first pages, Art Since 1900 trains our focus on the theoretical framing of art history rather than its facts or familiar monuments.

The heart of the book consists of 107 essays, or “entries,” each written by one of the authors.2 Every passage is keyed to an individual year from 1900 to 2003 or, more precisely, to an event from that year—the creation of an artwork, the publication of a particular text, the mounting of an exhibition, the death of an artist. While some events are predictably canonical (Picasso’s completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon marks 1907), many are relatively obscure: a lecture by the Constructivist painter Varvara Stepanova (1921); the critical and commercial failure of Barnett Newman’s second show at the Betty Parsons gallery (1951); the opening of the alternative art space P.S. 1 in Queens (1976). The selected events provide the starting point rather than the focus of the entries that follow. In “1976,” for example, Krauss contrasts the opening of P.S. 1 with the contemporaneous “King Tut” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the rise of the exhibition blockbuster in the late 1970s and ’80s. In a sharp critique of art-world commercialism, she concludes with an account of the “globalized museum” of the 1990s (read: Planet Guggenheim) as a “nightmare” of “simulacral spectacle.” Like Krauss, the other authors often slide forward or backward from their assigned start dates in order to develop a line of argument or trace a sphere of influence. They approach modern art less as a sequential record of events to be reported than as a series of interpretive problems to be pursued.

Some years in Art Since 1900 are awarded more than one entry (1959, for instance, gets four) while others receive none (1905, 1941, and 1979 are among the no-shows). At first glance, this has the effect of making the historical past seem random, off-kilter, and oddly weighted (remember Pearl Harbor?), and, in a sense, this is precisely the book’s point. For these authors, the history of modern art cannot be divided up into tidy narratives (one per year) of artistic progress, political context, and generational succession. Rather, that history must be understood as a field of competing agendas and proposals, of multiple temporalities and incommensurate effects. The three entries on the year 1967, for instance, trace an itinerary that extends from Robert Smithson’s Artforum essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” to the first arte povera exhibition in Milan to the Paris of early Daniel Buren and the face-off between Conceptual art and post-Cubist abstraction. Rather than a punctual moment, “1967” is thus understood as a set of synchronic (though not causally related) experiments in art, curatorial practice, and critical writing on two continents.

Art Since 1900 vastly enriches familiar narratives of the modernist avant-garde, in part by looking hard at the counterforce of antimodernism (e.g., Soviet socialist realism, Nazi neoclassicism); in part by insisting on the importance of photography as both artistic practice and indexical sign; and in part by tracking the international relays and reception of modernism, as, for example, in an entry on the adaptation of Russian Constructivism by Polish and Hungarian artists of the late 1920s. However finely drawn and multicentric, the book remains almost exclusively Euro-American in focus. The primary exception to this rule—Bois’s entry on the Japanese Gutaï group and Brazilian Neoconcretismo from the late 1950s— signals both the necessity and the challenge of opening Art Since 1900 to other cultures and continents. By framing Gutaï as a “creative misreading of Pollock” and Neoconcretismo as a “reinterpretation, from a peripheral outpost, of a canonical trend of Western modernism [i.e., geometric abstraction],” Bois reinforces the primacy of the Euro-American avant-garde even as he turns to other sites of artistic production.

One peculiarity of the book may here be taken as symptomatic. Of its 107 entries, 105 are authored by Bois, Buchloh, Foster, or Krauss. The other two are attributed to a writer identified only as “A. D.” in the table of contents. A woman whose name matches those initials is thanked in the acknowledgments “for her assistance in the preparation of this book.” All this might seem inconsequential but for the fact that A. D.’s two entries are those on Mexican muralism and the Harlem Renaissance. Although competent by the standards of a conventional textbook, these entries present none of the rhetorical intensity or critical sophistication that distinguish Art Since 1900. After having read, say, Buchloh’s intricate analysis of socialist realism or Foster’s subtle parsing of the psychodynamics of émigré surrealism, A. D.’s all-purpose account of the Harlem Renaissance (“The twenties were a time of optimism, pride, and excitement for African-Americans . . .”) sounds facile, even condescending. While gesturing toward inclusion, Art Since 1900 sets black and brown artists of the prewar period within a separate sphere of simplification.

What comes across quite boldly in the other 105 entries is the voice of the authors as art critics. Individual works, movements, and exhibitions are not only described and theorized; they are also judged on aesthetic and ideological grounds. Bois dismisses the 1925 Art Deco exhibition in Paris as a commercial “fantasy land” whose popular appeal “was in direct proportion to its artistic mediocrity.” Later in the book, Foster divides postmodernist art of the early ’80s into opposing camps—the (bad) “neoconservative pastiche” of Anselm Kiefer, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel and the (good) “poststructuralist textuality” of Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, and Barbara Kruger. From the perspective of teaching art history, such judgments may be valuable less for the verdicts they declare than for the fact of their having been declared so openly. Rather than assume the neutral voice of scholarly dispassion, Art Since 1900 insists on art history as a motivated, even partisan, endeavor. The polemical positions of the authors come out most strongly in the two “roundtable” discussions that punctuate the book, the first on “art at mid-century,” the other on “the predicament of contemporary art.” Even when one doesn’t agree with the views expressed in these freewheeling conversations (at one point, Buchloh calls Matthew Barney “a proto-totalitarian artist . . . a small-time American Richard Wagner”), the critical chutzpah of the speakers is unforgettable.

To a degree that many readers will find distressing, Art Since 1900 frequently ignores macrohistorical events. The Vietnam War, for instance, makes virtually no impression on the entries devoted to the ’60s and early ’70s despite the significant points of intersection between artistic practice and the anti-war movement at the time (e.g., the Art Workers Coalition and Guerrilla Art Action Group in New York, the Artists Protest Committee in Los Angeles).

In the entry on 1970, Krauss discusses Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, an Earthwork created at Kent State University in January of that year. She situates the work within an “expanded field” of sculpture that constitutes “both landscape and architecture” and thereby redefines the idea of site specificity. This interpretation of Smithson’s work (drawn from an influential essay Krauss published in October more than twenty-five years ago) is firmly grounded in the logic of structuralism, as the accompanying diagrams of the “Klein Group” in “quarternary expansion” attest. What remains unmapped by the argument, however, are the four student protestors shot to death by National Guardsmen at Kent State in May 1970 and the ways those deaths inevitably changed and charged the symbolic force of Smithson’s half-buried ruin. How might the paradigm of “sculpture in the expanded field” address that?

Art Since 1900 sometimes feels sealed off from the broader social and political conditions that have shaped modern art. To say this, however, is also to recognize that the authors are playing to their strengths. They have crafted a comprehensive survey of avant-garde art in Europe and the United States, not a cultural history of the twentieth century. For these authors, art does not unfold against a backdrop of historical experience; it constitutes that experience. Similarly, works of art do not “illustrate” critical theory; they propose their own theories of vision and modernity. In some of the book’s most beautiful passages (Bois on the “blinding effect” of Matisse’s paintings, Krauss on the “abstraction of the cut” in Stieglitz’s cloud photographs), an encounter with a work of art is so richly described that it comes to comprise a visual and perceptual world of its own.

This is not say that the ideological contradictions or political ambitions of twentieth-century art are overlooked. The entries on Futurism, Berlin Dada, Russian Constructivism, and FSA photography, among many others, convey the political urgency of artistic production in historically specific contexts. The core commitment of Art Since 1900, however, is not to the social history of art, nor, for that matter, to psychoanalytic, structuralist, or poststructuralist theory. Rather, the book’s guiding allegiance is to a vision of the avant-garde in which complex form and interpretive difficulty provide a means, however tenuous, of resisting the routinization of everyday life. The authors evaluate art, in part, by the degree to which it counters or conspires with the pernicious effects of “the culture industry,” “late” or “global capitalism,” “corporate imperialism,” “spectacle culture” and, of course, “kitsch.”

In the concluding roundtable, Krauss affirms that “kitsch is the meretricious, and we see that everywhere,” a line that neatly mirrors Clement Greenberg’s declaration that “kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” Greenberg’s comment dates from 1939, Krauss’s from last year.3 In the sixty-five intervening years, a great deal of intellectual work has sought to complicate such totalizing views of mass culture, whether by focusing on distinctive forms of popular reception, recycling, and riffing; on the uneven effects of global distribution in local contexts; or on the practice of “reading against the grain” of manifest messages. Such work has helped clear the way for new fields of inquiry, including visual and cultural studies, media theory, and postcolonialism. How will readers trained or interested in those fields make use of Art Since 1900? How will the book’s essentially modernist sympathies speak to a contemporary audience with rather different loyalties?

Art Since 1900 might well become the definitive modern-art textbook for the next couple of generations of university students. I, for one, hope that it does. Students will take away from the book a superb model of critical engagement and an unrivaled account of the historical avant-garde and its postmodern legacies. But those students (and their teachers) will rightly insist on alternative ways to approach modern and contemporary art and on cultural commitments that extend beyond—as well as beneath—the avant-garde.

Richard Meyer is associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.


1. As quoted in Peter G. Ziv, “Visit: Clement Greenberg,” Art & Antiques, September 1987. In its fuller context, the quote reads as follows: “Do I exclude a lot of people? Yes. You don’t choose your response to art. It’s given to you. You have your nerve, your chutzpah, and then you work hard on seeing how to tell the difference between good and bad.”

2. In a slightly coy move, the essays have been left unsigned only to be attributed, via the author’s initials, on the green table-of-contents page that pre- cedes each decade’s cluster of entries. The “master” table of contents at the front of the book does not include these attributions. In reading Art Since 1900, I would repeatedly flip back and forth to confirm a hunch about the authorship of a particular entry, then berate myself for investing in the name of the author.

3. In fairness, I should point out that Krauss quickly modifies her statement by describing the critical “mobilization of kitsch” by Lucio Fontana, Jean Fautrier, and Francis Picabia. Even here, however, kitsch may be “mobilized” only when it is reworked by an avant-garde artist. For Bois, the concept of “kitsch seems very dated—it has been replaced by spectacle,” a view which Foster reinforces and expands upon later in the roundtable: “Many artists—perhaps most under fifty—assume that that dialectic [between avant-garde and kitsch] is now overwhelmed, that they have to work within a condition of spectacle. That’s not to say they capitulate to it, although we see extravagant examples of that embrace too. (Spectacle is the very logic of a Matthew Barney, his ‘medium’ if you like, and for many people he turns it to his advantage).” According to this scenario, the possibility of a quasi-autonomous avant-garde has been debunked by the “condition of spectacle” (which is also the condition of Matthew Barney). Foster does go on to say, however, that “some artists also find productive cracks within this condition.” Krauss’s model of artistic production (resisting kitsch or critically mobilizing it) and Foster’s (finding the cracks in the structure of spectacle) are both premised on the idea that the artist must rework or resist mass culture. Neither kitsch nor spectacle is of interest on its own terms.


Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 2004, 704 pages.