The march of the avant-gardes

Art since 1900
February 24, 2006

Henry Meyric Hughes lauds a survey of 20th-century artistic movements

Whatever happened to art history? The shifting narratives of museum displays, the rise of cultural studies, the growth of art fairs and biennales and the spectacularisation of art suggest that it is suffering a crisis of identity. We have seen the critic replaced by the curator and criticism by new forms of "art description" in the media. No longer willing to propose a single perspective, four eminent American critics and art historians (two of them of European origin) now offer a team solution to the problem of charting a course through the troubled waters of art since the dawn of the 20th century. They set out their positions in individual introductory essays and take stock at mid-course and at the end of the voyage.

Speaking for the psychoanalytical approach, Hal Foster notes a shift from Freudian interpretations in the first part of the century to a concern with Jungian archetypes in the second and the employment of new psychoanalytical methods in feminist and post-colonial theory from the 1970s onwards.

Benjamin Buchloh sets out from a Marxist position to examine the relationship between art and the media, the history and historiography of photography and the impact of social, economic and political considerations on the "new art history" and cultural studies.

Yve-Alain Bois traces the twists and turns of the formalist debate, from Bertolt Brecht's integrative structural approach to Georg Luk cs's more restrictive separation of form from content to the terminological confusion created by Clement Greenberg's switch from one to the other. From there he goes on to examine the influence of structuralist theory on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finally, Rosalind Krauss shows how post-structuralist philosophy can underpin the critique of artists such as Marcel Broodthaers and Daniel Buren and provide a justification for "appropriationists" such as Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine, who envisaged the disappearance of the author and "reality" itself.

These separate approaches are interwoven skilfully to create a complex narrative that is pegged to a chronological frame but offers shifting perspectives and multiple openings for interpretation. Subject matter is arranged by decades and years, and further broken down into 111 individual sections of roughly equal length, devoted to leading artists, movements or intellectual developments. Inset boxes provide vignettes of key personalities, concepts or issues, and symbols in the margins are used for cross-references. Finally, there is a useful glossary of terms and short bibliographies.

The theoretical debate is subsumed in many of the texts and surfaces productively at intervals, where different interpretations are offered to the reader, either as mutually exclusive alternatives or as enrichment of meaning. One such instance is Krauss's account of Picasso's unexpected return to figurative painting in the middle of the First World War. Some observers saw this as a temporary aberration in the highly charged atmosphere where Modernists in France were suspected of belonging to an international conspiracy, whereas others attributed it to internal developments in his own work or to his immersion in the beau monde of the Ballets Russes. Picasso himself confounded both - by declaring that he saw no contradiction between Neoclassical pastiche and Cubist experimentation.

The book's subtitle "Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism" is somewhat misleading because Antimodernism and Postmodernism are presented as adjuncts to the principal subject. The references to Socialist Realism are particularly confusing in this connection, as the authors seem unwilling to distinguish between the state art of Stalin and the stylistically conservative figurative art of the Western democracies in the 1930s; or between the propagandist murals of the German Democratic Republic and the attempts of painters such as Werner Tübke to forge a distinctive national style.

One of the most persuasive aspects of the methodology employed is its success in demonstrating the consistency of Modernist endeavour, from the beginning of the century down to... well, to a debatable point within living memory. The theoretical justifications for abstraction around 1912-13 and for Suprematism in 1915 are shown to anticipate a "zero degree", or irreducible minimum, of painting or sculpture in Greenberg's writings of a half-century later, just as the formal logic underlying the modular sculpture of Alexander Rodchenko is shown to have influenced the deductive structures of the Minimalists. Likewise, the Dadaist movement is shown to have anticipated the Situationist International and Fluxus, on a number of levels.

Arguably, two or three major figures are short-changed: Henri Rousseau, as an influence on the German and Russian avant-gardes and the Surrealists; Francis Bacon, who is reduced to the role of a walk-on existentialist; and Robert Rauschenberg, as a contributor to American Pop. The omission of Frida Kahlo will also seem inexplicable to a younger generation brought up on an issue-based approach.

More serious is the authors' failure to recognise, or evaluate, the wealth of artistic activity in Eastern and south-eastern Europe immediately before the First World War, in the interwar years and throughout the Cold War. This, in turn, leads to an imbalance in the coverage of (west) European art of the 1990s. While it is good to have a chapter on Unism in the 1920s and its origins in the Suprematist movement, no reference is made to the Unists' later connections with Abstraction Creation in Paris, or to their creation in Lodz, in Poland, in 1931, of one of the first international contemporary art museums in the world. Further on, it is equally disappointing that a leading figure such as the Yugoslav Marina Abramovic should be mentioned only perfunctorily in a chapter devoted almost exclusively to American performance art, and that there is no discussion of the reception of conceptual art in Eastern Europe or of a major figure such as Roman Opalka. The geographical bias extends to the careless editing of German words and proper names ("Auguste" Macke, "Weiland" Herzfelde, "Gunter Ucker", "Völk"), the labelling of the idiosyncratic poet Christian Morgenstern as a "German Expressionist" and the antedating of documenta 1 to 1945.

While it is understandable that the book is pitched at an American-British readership, its geographical imbalance may serve as a brake on anyone wishing to publish it in translation. If so, this would be a pity because the majority of the texts are outstandingly useful, well researched and well written. The range of topics covered is unusually broad and extends from theoretical issues and social and political developments to accounts of historic exhibitions and their impact, analyses of the art market and reflections on the changing role of the museum. There are also good explanations of techniques and their functional significance.

In the final sections, Foster struggles manfully, but almost alone, to deal with the multiple issues thrown up in the past ten years of interdisciplinary art, feminist art, political art, multiculturalism, relational aesthetics and what is billed as "the informal and discursive nature of much recent art making and curating". By now, the trouble is that he is into a different narrative, in areas where his fellow authors seem disinclined to follow. Is this a generational problem, a missed opportunity for engagement or a symptom of deeper malaise?

Whatever the answer - and it is unlikely that there is only one - this book is a monumental achievement, elegantly written and presented, with some 637 illustrations, two thirds of them in colour. It is the nearest we are likely to get, for a very long time, to a comprehensive history of Modernism in Western art. At £45.00 it offers good value, though its density and bulk disqualify it from both the coffee table and the bedside. Art since 1900 is a noble memorial to Thames and Hudson's distinguished art editor, the late Nikos Stangos.

Henry Meyric Hughes is a freelance exhibition curator who was formerly director of exhibitions, South Bank Centre. He is president of the International Association of Art Critics and president of the International Foundation Manifesta.

Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism and Postmodernism

Author - Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 704
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 500 23818 9

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