A House Divided: American Art since 1955

May 24, 2012

How do artists go public? How is their work critically received? And how might they contribute to its reception, from writing public statements to publishing private memoirs, staging publicity photographs or titling their works? These are the concerns of Anne Middleton Wagner's eloquent new book, which she explores through close readings of post-war American artists - from David Smith to Andy Warhol, from Maya Lin to Kara Walker - whose work has ignited controversy and debate.

Wagner always starts with the process of encountering specific works of art. Descriptive but never prescriptive, she avoids generalisation and cuts through critical commonplace. She shows how the work of art also puts the viewer to work. Focusing on canonical artists, she inspires us to see new things in art that we thought we already understood, and to look again at things we had earlier dismissed. "Seeing" is perhaps the wrong word here, for Wagner's responses are always fully affective: she feels and senses as much as she looks and thinks. She also understands how art is made, on both a material and a conceptual level. Her account of Jasper Johns making his 1954-55 Flag from pieces of cloth and newsprint that are partly legible beneath the painting's wax surface made me realise that I had never fully appreciated this work. Yet her attention to process and production never feels prosaically connoisseurial or cloyingly fetishistic, and always looks out to art's wider social contexts and meanings.

There is an intimacy to her writing that makes you conscious of her physical presence. I found myself reading certain passages aloud, revelling in their conversational pace and cadence, their gentle wordplays and puns. The book possesses moments of pure hilarity, too, as when it reproduces a photograph of the actor Jackie Gleason to accompany artist Mel Bochner's casting notes for a hypothetical film, Minimal Art: The Movie (in which Gleason would play the role of sculptor Dan Flavin).

The concept of internal division that gives the book its title is a recurring trope. Gordon Matta-Clark's Splitting (1974) is "creative and destructive" at once; Bruce Nauman conquers sculpture only to stage its demise; Louise Bourgeois' approach to sculpture and identity simultaneously makes and unmakes itself. One can't help wondering if these self-contradictory qualities exist to the extent that Wagner sees them, or whether she projects them into the art that she admires. The question of critical projection is one addressed in the book: Warhol, for instance, has been portrayed as either a critic or a symptom of commodity culture, according to who's writing.

One of Wagner's boldest moves is to critique critics who have influenced her. Rosalind Krauss and Lucy Lippard, whose importance she credits in the book's acknowledgements, are both called to task: Krauss for expounding Modernist logic and progress ("Just say no to arrows, vectors, and grids," Wagner writes mischievously of the diagrams in Krauss' 1979 essay "Sculpture in the Expanded Field"); Lippard for downplaying Eva Hesse's intellect in a feminist defence of emotion. To Wagner's credit, these critiques never feel mean-spirited, but stem from the ethical impulse that motivates all her work: to look closely and seriously, and to take nothing for granted.

Where the book falls short is in its effort to rework a collection of essays, written over 16 years, into a coherent narrative. Not only does this attempt whiff of retro-engineering, it also denies the importance of time, place and context that Wagner stresses persuasively elsewhere. Also less than convincing is the volume's professed theme of American identity, especially when its actual focus - on art's "public speech" and its effect on us, wherever we reside - is so much more compellingly explored.

A House Divided: American Art since 1955

By Anne Middleton Wagner. University of California Press. 240pp, £24.95. ISBN 97805200978. Published 9 March 2012

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