Is it appropriate to consider contemporary art the way we consider, say, pre-World War II modern art? Are European models of art history, driven by a seemingly inevitable progression of major works and artistic movements, appropriate for considering American-born contemporary art?
No, argues Katy Siegel in “Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art” (Reaktion), a fascinating new book that should prompt critics, academics and curators to re-think their approaches to art. Throughout “Since ’45” Siegel, a professor of art history at Hunter College and the editor of the College Art Association’s Art Journal, advocates for examining art within the context of a broader social history, to re-weight how we think of art history to emphasize ‘history’ at least as much as the ‘art.’
Siegel’s big idea is that we should think of American contemporary art as a response not just to other art, but to American dominance in the period between the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Consider the pop art of Tom Wesselmann or the minimalism of Donald Judd, both of whom were fascinated by the way American art tended to look toward the middle-class home and to broadly available consumerist objects, as examiners of the then-ongoing American century. In an art world that often approaches art as a lifestyle to join and which increasingly treats artists and their work in the context of marketable commodity – Kalup Linzy was recently described to me as worthy of consideration in part because he’s a spokesperson of some kind for a liquor company – the idea that we should treat art and artists as important actors in a broader historical narrative is refreshing.
Siegel’s preface, a 10-page introductory essay that lays out her thesis, is the strongest section of the book, a must-read. It argues for considering post-war American art not just as art history but as a commenter on America’s emergence toward superpower. From there Siegel picks selected periods and themes and demonstrates how her approach to art of the last 65 years can give us a fuller view of how art and of life in America have contributed to each other.
Siegel examines how artists filtered the experience of The Bomb into their work, making especially interesting connections between, say, Norman Lewis and America’s nuclear pre-eminence. She considers art in the context of America’s migration from the east to the west and south. She examines what black and white mean in America and in her art and how artists have used those colors (or lack thereof) in ways that reflect sociocultural situations. In a particularly engaging section, Siegel suggests thinking about the post-war boom of the American middle class through artists such as Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Michael Smith. (Key difference between the U.S. and pre-WWII European modernism: In the European avant-garde, the bourgeois was the enemy. In the American avant-garde, artists sought to convey bohemian credentials even as they took inspiration from the living standards of the American middle.) Siegel doesn’t try to pick up on every art-plus-American-century meme – the gay equality movement rose in almost exact parallel to the emergence of American contemporary art, but Siegel passes on that one – but that’s OK. She’s trying to begin a conversation rather than have the last word. [Image: Norman Lewis, Every Atom Glows: Electrons in Luminous Vibration, 1951.]
Throughout, Siegel ties these explorations to what she sees as a need to consider contemporary art as part of an ongoing narrative, not as a march of -isms and period-defining masterpieces: “Despite the efforts of historians — art historians anyway — to assimilate the contemporary to familiar narratives of modernism, to locate and repeat beginnings and endings,” writes Siegel, “the history of art since 1945 is unfinished, unframed, without a predetermined direction or end. This is a valuable contribution because, in fact, social history does not have a pre-determined shape.”
One of the characteristics of social history is that it emphasizes that a nation’s or a world’s story isn’t determined only by wealthy elites or a ruling class, that a national story is played out by many actors. In “Since ’45,” the ‘ordinary people’ are artists, and Siegel argues for including their work as protagonists in our nation’s drama. Because visual artists, like novelists or filmmakers, are free to examine the biggest questions and issues that confront us in any way that they like, they show us things we might not see – or too often choose not to see. As Souren Melikian recently said in the International Herald Tribune, “People deeply involved in art, rich and not so rich, tend to live in their own cocoon. They are not used to having the worries of the rest of the world thrown in their faces.” Siegel celebrates art’s ability to do just that.
In addition to a tendency to become a bit checklisty in parts, “Since ’45’s” primary weakness is made all the more glaring because of the book’s strength. From her first pages, Siegel argues that Americanness is inherent to the rise of contemporary art, but too often she considers America synonymous with New York. Siegel asserts that for 50 years after the end of WWII that New York “was the center of world art,” a long-ago-discarded canard which fails to acknowledge the rise of Germany and California, to name just two other centers of art. When an artist moves out of New York, he is’ giving up’ or is in “retreat.” Tellingly, errors creep in to Siegel’s text when she deals with artists who are not New Yorkers: For example, she describes Clyfford Still as leaving New York to move “back to the West.” (Not quite: He moved to Carroll County, Maryland.) Siegel also describes the “major figures” of AbEx, save Barnett Newman, as “having been employed by” the Works Progress Administration. Still was never a WPA artist. [Image: Tom Wesselmann, Bathtub 3, 1963. Collection Ludwig Museum, Cologne.]
Siegel also repeatedly pins artists and critics based outside New York with a diminishing geographic identifier. (There are no “New York artists.”) Critic and provocateur Dave Hickey is a “devoted Westerner” who discusses Ed Ruscha in a given context apparently because Hickey is “L.A.-oriented.” (Also: There are no “devoted Easterners” in the book because Siegel is, well, New York-oriented.) Siegel’s sections on the atomic bomb would have been stronger if she hadn’t limited her responding-to-the-bomb roster to New Yorkers: Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo and John McLaughlin all fit. Similarly, Siegel might have considered how the West Coast’s proximity to Japan and what it believed was an acute and present threat from the Japanese worked its way into artists studios.
And speaking of the West Coast, Siegel might have compared her thesis to the similar approach Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron has taken to German art, most recently in her landmark “Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Culture” exhibition.
Part two: By arguing that critics, curators and historians take a more American-focused approach to recent art, is Siegel arguing for… journalism?