Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2010
Barbara Groseclose and Jochen Wierich, eds. Internationalizing the History of American Art: Views University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 256 pp.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780271032009 )

The health of a discipline is often revealed in the questions it asks of itself, and in its self-consciousness about its origins and development over time. Internationalizing the History of American Art, edited by Barbara Groseclose and Jochen Wierich, is marked throughout by such questioning and self-examination. It distinguishes itself from other overviews of the development of the history of American art by its critical examination of “the transmission and exchange of ideas about American art and its history in an international context” (1),1 a context embodied, in part, in the biographies of the authors included in the anthology. The goal of the editors, however, is not simply to compile a series of commentaries on how “outsiders” saw the art of the United States, but to examine, in a dialogical fashion, “the narrative frameworks of history through which a scholarship called American art has been interpreted” (2).

The ten essays in Internationalizing the History of American Art provide ample opportunity for the reader to delve into the scholarly exchanges that marked, with increasing frequency, the development of a literature on American art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If there is a focus on trans-Atlantic exchanges, that is because, as the editors point out, the foundations of art-historical scholarship in the United States, as well as the aesthetic frameworks for evaluating art produced in the United States by Americans of European descent, were—and still are, for the most part—European. And most of the writings engaging with the work of American artists over the course of the past two centuries have been produced by Europeans or North Americans of European descent. This is particularly true of commentaries on pre-1945 American art, a cut-off date that the editors chose, with a few exceptions, to apply in their selection of essays. In settling on the term “internationalizing” rather than “international” for their title, they hope to emphasize art history not as a static condition but as “an ongoing process of exchange between nations, qua nations, as equals, in which each remains autonomous” (5). Yet they also see this focus on the internationalizing process as an opportunity to speculate on what an art history that rejects the national as an organizing principle might look like.

The majority of the authors examined in Internationalizing the History of American Art adhered to the belief that the art of a country reveals something about what that country is as a nation, a belief based in nineteenth-century philosophies like that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel which linked race and nation, society and artistic expression. Rebecca Zurier, in her opening essay, explores some of the implications of such a belief. She points out how many Europeans approached the United States as a “cultural Other,” one lacking in the sophistication and cultural traditions of Europe, and yet because of this, as a source of novelty and “freedom.” America was used by these authors—e.g., the German art historian Aby Warburg, the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, and the Italian critic Giuseppe Maria Lo Duca—as “an emblem of both the primordial past and an inevitable future” (21). Zurier also reveals the interdependence of the writings of American and European scholars (the latter often relied on the former as key sources) and their common investment in the nationalizing project of art history, even when framed within the internationalizing rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s. This interdependence is also embodied in a narrative that marks much writing on American art on both sides of the Atlantic—how to live up to the models of European art while at the same time being free of them.

The essays by Wierich and Andrew Hemmingway look critically at these European models and how their adoption as “universally applicable” shaped an understanding of pre-1945 American art both in the United States and in Europe. Wierich focuses on a European philosophical tradition ranging from Hegel to Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, Max Dvořák, and Paul Frankl, and how it was carried on and transformed in the work of the émigré/American scholars Oscar Hagen, Wolfgang Born, Alfred Neumeyer, and Barbara Novak. Hemingway is more concerned with theories of modernism that emerged in France in the late nineteenth century and their impact on the evaluation of pre-1940 American art in the writings of U.S.-based scholars such as Charles Caffin, Suzanne La Follette, Milton Brown, and Robert Rosenblum. He also makes an important argument for the need for more thorough institutional studies—“of art education, the nature and interests of patronage, the ideologies of art, the international art trade and movements of artists” (77)—because without such studies it is impossible to create “a comparative history, in which different national cultures [are] seen as all equally worthy of explanation.” Such a comparative history is necessary in order to “properly understand why and how American art is different from that of other nation-states, and they from each other” (78).

Many of the subsequent essays attempt to fill in some of these absences in institutional histories. David Peters Corbett provides insight into the “institutional presence” or lack thereof of both nineteenth-century British and American art, whether in College Art Association surveys or university curricula. He suggests a new way to view the relationship between British and American cultural traditions, at least in the field of nineteenth-century art: rather than privileging one over the other, he argues that both have suffered from institutional neglect, although American art has fared somewhat better than British art in this respect. Corbett suggests a partial solution to this problem of neglect, which applies to the art of many other nations as well: abandon national frameworks altogether in favor of more interpretive—even ahistorical—studies, such as those “speculative” and “creative” responses to works of art found in much of the writing of Jules Prown, David Lubin, and Alexander Nemerov.

Marilyn McKay also looks at educational institutions such as universities and museums—in this instance, in Canada in the late twentieth century. She points out how pre-1945 American art seldom appeared in either, and when it did, was often framed as of lesser value—at least moral value—than its Canadian counterparts. Veerle Thielemans undertakes a similar examination of the less-than-flattering criticism that emerged in the nineteenth century in France in response to exhibitions of American art. In revealing the presence of nationalist concerns in the writing of Canadian and French critics, McKay and Thielemans reaffirm a point made earlier by Groseclose and Wierich, that “outsider” status does not guarantee a non-ideological position from which to view the history or art of another nation.

Several of the essays in Internationalizing the History of American Art point to the paucity of exhibitions and collections of American art in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the negative effect this had on European commentaries on such art. This limited exposure to art objects was often complicated by a reliance on surveys of American art published in the United States that were, themselves, limited in coverage and/or grounded in theories of American exceptionalism. The essays by Derrick R. Cartwright and Sophie Levy look at one specific attempt, by the Chicago businessman Daniel J. Terra, to rectify this situation. In June 1992, Terra opened his Musée d’Art Américain in Giverny, France, an institution founded, in the words of Cartwright, “on the premise that U.S. culture could be usefully imported and would restore a lost (or at least underappreciated) aspect of visual culture to the French” (134). Cartwright and Levy provide nuanced readings of both the strengths and limitations of Terra’s intentions and institution and the challenges of creating an ongoing U.S./French dialogue within the ever-changing world of U.S./French diplomatic relations.

The last two essays in the anthology, by Serge Guilbaut and Christin J. Mamiya, shift the focus from pre-1945 to post-1945 American art. As in the essays by Cartwright and Levy, the main protagonists are businessmen: the Brazilian Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, the American Nelson Rockefeller, and the Germans Peter Ludwig and Karl Ströher. Both authors examine the ways in which the promotion of art, politics, and industry went hand in hand in the post-World War II years, with the establishment of a museum of modern art in Sao Paolo under the sponsorship of Sobrinho (Guilbaut) and the creation of collections of Pop Art by Ludwig and Ströher in Germany (Mamiya). Each author positions these developments within an aggressive U.S. Cold War cultural foreign policy, yet each also reveals the limits of such a policy—in the case of Brazil, the influence of Rockefeller is ultimately trumped by the Belgian/Parisian critic Léon Degand, whose dreams of modern art in Sao Paolo are undermined by resistance from the Brazilian public and intelligentsia.

These exposés of corporate cultural ventures abroad are an appropriate way to end an anthology on internationalizing the history of American art, for not only are artists and art institutions currently expanding in their geographic reach, but art itself is increasingly being positioned as a solution to various urban economic woes across the globe—e.g., the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Manchester International Art Festival, etc. Internationalizing the History of American Art provides a valuable history of cross-border cultural ventures and helps formulate the necessary questions for considering the place of the history of American art within the intersections of art, economics, and politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Frances K. Pohl
Professor, Department of Art History, Pomona College

1 The two overviews cited in several of the essays in this collection are Wanda Corn, “Coming of Age: Historical Scholarship in American Art,” Art Bulletin 70, no. 2 (1988): 188–207; and John Davis, “The End of the American Century: Current Scholarship on the Art of the United States,” Art Bulletin 85, no. 3 (2003): 544–80.