The Tree of Art

In May 1933 Vanity Fair magazine ran a cheeky illustration billed as “The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago.” The artist was Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican-born caricaturist who was the Al Hirschfeld of his time. Covarrubias, who portrayed many Harlem Renaissance figures, is the subject of an absorbing show at the California African American Museum. That exhibition presents a poster-size facsimile of Covarrubias’s tree. It’s thought-provoking in several ways.

For one thing, it predates Alfred Barr’s earnest and much better-known 1936 diagram, “The Development of Abstract Art.” In fact, it’s plausible that Barr saw or heard of Covarrubias’ diagram. If so, Covarrubias might have indirectly influenced MoMA’s (the world’s) vision of moderism. Is anybody paying attention to that?

In Covarrubias’ image, an African wood sculpture and an antique marble head sit beside the roots of modernism. Those roots are all French: Poussin, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Daumier, and Corot. Impressionists form the trunk. It splits into three Post-Impressionist limbs, for Cezanne, Seurat, and Gauguin/van Gogh. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Cezanne limb is pruned, sprouting the Cubists at right angle. (Duchamp is classified as a Cubist, not a Dadaist.) Gauguin and van Gogh lead to the Fauves and Expressionists. The Seurat lineage ends in a braided espalier finessing the fact that he must have seemed the underperforming Post-Impressionist at the time (before Lichtenstein and Close and the whole pixel thing).

Covarrubias omits many of today’s usual suspects. Dalí and Mondrian were at the top of their game by 1933, and Malevich was past it—but they’re not on this tree. Covarrubias does include several artists who are extremely obscure today. One unintended message is that time is the Great Curator. One visual gag is hard to fault: Henri Rousseau as an exotic bird perched on a clipped offshoot.

Below is Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram for the Museum of Modern Art. Barr charts movements more than individual artists, and naturally he dispenses with the niceties of a “tree” in favor of a flow chart.

Barr’s diagram has become notorious. It is said to epitomize a MoMA-dictated linear and even fascist vision of art history. I’m not sure why. Look at the thing. I would say that Barr’s thesis is that art history is “nonlinear” and “messy,” to use today’s buzzwords.

Oh, well. Barr’s diagram invited parodies, and it got them. In 1938 painter Nathaniel Pousette-Dart—father of the better-known abstractionist Richard Pousette-Dart—published “A Tree Chart of Contemporary American Art” in the June-July 1938 issue of Art and Artistes of Today.

This is a tea party reaction to MoMA’s Eurocentrism. Currier and Ives is a limb! Nevertheless, at the crown of Pousette-Dart’s creation are MoMA’s beloved abstractionists. Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis are close to the top. At the very tip are… John Graham and Katherine Dreier. The real puzzler is Adolf Dehn, sole leaf on the Chinese trunk. Say what?

The July 2, 1946 issue of New York’s highbrow tabloid P.M. carried Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America.” It’s by a long shot the funniest, most relevant, and most caustic of the genre. I’d wager that Reinhardt knew of the Covarrubias tree in Vanity Fair, for he includes several birds, the most amusing being those two love birds, Guggenheim gate-keeper Hilla Rebay and boytoy-abstractionist Rudolf Bauer.

Sorry, Miguel. “Mexican Art Influence” is a lead weight burdening an already fracturing limb of American modernism. Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston, and the late, great Dorothea Tanning are about to be wished away into Reinhardt’s cornfield.

Covarrubias had something to do with the Mexican influence on American art, for he was one of the curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1940 exhibition, “20 Centuries of Mexican Art.” Below is Covarrubias’ Vanity Fair caricature of the opening gala, itself a kind of art-world family tree. The Vanity Fair spread is also on view—with identifying key—at CAAM.

Going by the chronology, Covarrubias either invented, revived, or popularized a meme. Satirical or serious, trees of art history are sometimes illuminating and almost always fun. Why aren’t we doing more of them today?

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