May 2011

Jacob Mikanowski

nonfiction

Since '45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art by Katy Siegel

Black Square: unyielding and implacable, Kazimir Malevich’s painting haunts the history of modern art like a rogue singularity, threatening to suck everything around it into its abyss. The history of European Modernism is full of attempts to reach that kind of endgame, a cul-de-sac of pure negation or complete self-reference.

American art is different. As Katy Siegel points out in Since ’45, her new interpretive history of the post-World War II American art world, American artists didn’t share their European counterparts’ obsession with the radical, self-limiting gesture. Their art was more concerned with success than with scandal, and with apocalypse out in the world rather than in art. Siegel argues that to understand the history of the American avant-garde, it isn’t enough to treat it as a European import gone wild: it has to be read in light of America’s social and cultural history, and in Since ’45 she does just that. Cutting a broad swath through the profusion of movements, practices and personalities in the trackless jungle of contemporary art, she returns with a map of our collective preoccupations. We are revealed as a nation of suburban conformists and wild frontiersmen, Babbitts and hippies, obsessed with success, race, home improvement and nuclear war, roughly in that order.

Since ’45 is structured around five long, digressive chapters, each of which picks up a thread of commonality in American art and follows it from the initial postwar moment to the present. 1945 has a dual function in this narrative: it’s the date when the center of the art world moved decisively from Paris to New York, but it is also the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so that the moment of American ascendency becomes inextricably linked with the threat of nuclear war.

This challenge -- the conjunction of absolute newness with terminal disaster -- is the subject of Siegel’s first chapter, “Beginning and End.” It looks at the way artists self-consciously marked their work as a break with the past immediately after the war. She starts with the abstract expressionists in New York, launching their work “from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed,” in Barnett Newman’s words, and then strikes out west, riding along the “unfinished, unopened New Jersey turnpike” with the sculptor Tony Smith. It’s a new epoch and a wide-open country, and at the same time, it’s a ruin. Siegel drives back over the same roads with Joel Sternfeld and Robert Smithson, and the same landscape becomes the wreck of Eden, “a kind of destroyed or derelict California.” It all comes together in a famous photograph by William Eggleston of a boy parking a line of shopping carts in front of a Los Alamos supermarket: the hard desert light, the cool American chrome and the shadows on the walls that could have been printed by an atom blast -- it’s movement and stasis, progress and doom, the open road and death from above all at once.

Since ’45 delivers many moments like this, when a pattern of influence and an idea about American history come together in a single image. Usually though, the chapters work discursively, bouncing among a disparate artists and artworks until a line of argument emerges. The book’s second chapter, “Black and White” follows the history of those two colors and their relationship to race. It begins with the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick and the obliterating white light of the atomic bomb, before proceeding to a consideration of work by William De Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Kerry James Marshall, Steven Parrino, Mike Kelley, Kara Walker and others.

The third chapter, “Success and Failure” looks at postwar artists through the prism of the market -- not in terms of capitalism or anti-capitalism, but of the very American pressure to be a somebody and not a nobody. This section starts with the Abstract Expressionists worrying about their authenticity, and Andy Warhol disavowing his, but it really hits its stride when it gets to the late '70s and a group of artists, mostly white, male and middle class, unified by the same great mock-heroic subject: themselves, their desire to make it in the art world, and the fear of getting lost in the shuffle. Siegel gives us Richard Prince asleep on his girlfriend’s couch, Bruce Conner running for San Francisco city supervisor, and Jeff Koons as the high priest and poet laureate of upward social mobility. Even Matthew Barney shows up at the end, spinning his gigantic movie-length allegories in which the boy always gets to the top of the tower, whether it’s the Chrysler Building or the Guggenheim Museum.

A handful of art stars like Barney and Koons may make it to the top of the mountain, but their ascent will always be shadowed by thousands of amateurs, strivers, and wannabes. “The One and the Many,” the most original (and worst named) chapter in Since ’45, takes up the subject of this teeming throng and its art. Siegel argues that the traditional European opposition between the aristocratic artist and the vulgar mass doesn’t hold in America, where the line between artist and audience is always on the verge of collapse. She assembles a fascinating group of artists devoted to a kind of homemade, everyday art, derived at once from the tradition of American folk art and the impulse for do-it-yourself home repair. This strain of work, visible in Harmony Hammond’s rug-like Floorpieces, Robert Gober’s dollhouses, H.C. Westermann’s assemblages of dust pans, embodies a Jeffersonian current in contemporary art, one that is wary of nostalgia, resistant to academic criticism, suspicious of elite institutions and rooted in the most democratic spaces of American culture -- the 19th-century family farm, the 20th-century garage, and, possibly, the online forums of the present.

Among the many discoveries in Since ’45, I found this Americanist crypto-movement the most intriguing, and I wish that Siegel had afforded it its own chapter instead of sandwiching it between repeated cameos by Clement Greenberg and Jeff Koons (though she curated an exhibition on it, Americanana, at Hunter College). I felt a similar frustration at other points in the book. Siegel is a daring and imaginative critic, able to tease out subterranean links among the most disparate bodies of work and follow them across the decades. Often though, Since ’45 works too hard to be comprehensive, rehashing iconic critical squabbles (Fried vs. Smithson, Greenberg vs. Krauss) that seem only tangentially related to the topic at hand, and inserting lumps of canned history (industrial decline, the cultural significance of the hippie) that don’t add much insight. A more personal, more freewheeling book could have pushed the arguments it makes further and given them the weight of authorial conviction. Of course, that would mean abandoning the strictures of academic publishing which weigh heavily on the body of the book. To see Siegel at her sharpest and funniest -- for instance on Darrin from Bewitched as the model of the hapless commercial artist -- look to footnotes.

Since ’45 ends where it began. Its final chapter, “First and Last,” takes on the subject of the people who were here before the start of America -- Indians, cavemen, cowboys, pilgrims -- and who we imagine will be here after it is over. Paul Thek’s The Tomb, his sculpture of himself as a dead hippie, is a funeral monument for all the sad, silly self-fashionings those myths inspired. Dana Schutz’s painting “Frank as Proboscis Monkey” shows the same figure, this time recast as prophecy, a portrait of the last American sprawling nude on the post-apocalyptic beachfront. Siegel pairs it with a quote from David Thomas of Pere Ubu, which could have been the book’s epitaph for the short, spooky 20th century it describes:

“We live in the beginning of a voodoo age of magic superstition and ignorance. We are in the last generation that will ever know what it was like, to live in an enlightened world…”

Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art by Katy Siegel
Reaktion Books
ISBN: 1861897731
254 Pages