Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2012
Jacqueline Francis Making Race: Modernism and "Racial Art" in America A McLellan Book.. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. 256 pp.; 12 color ills.; 47 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9780295991450)

Jacqueline Francis dedicates her book, Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America, to Malvin Gray Johnson, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Max Weber, the three interwar-era artists who serve as her principle case studies. This gesture is not only touching (who among us doesn’t feel indebted to “our” artists?); it also indicates something about Francis’s stakes. Like so many studies of minority American artists before this one, Making Race is fundamentally a restorative project. But unlike earlier scholarship, which sought to admit more artists to the art-historical canon, Making Race pursues something different—and more exciting. Deploying the lessons of critical race theory, Francis takes the social-constructedness of race as a given and establishes it as the methodological grounds of her investigation. This means, first, that artworks and art criticism come under investigation as sites of race’s production, and, second, that artists themselves emerge as self-reflexive actors in this milieu. Thus, what Francis restores is both the efficacy of art and the critical agency of artistic practice.

The title tips readers off to the book’s major endgame. In this study, “race” is something that has to be made: not just for artists (whether black, Japanese, or Jewish, as in the book’s main figures) but also by them—in canvases that Francis patiently reveals to be highly mediated essays in racialized performance. Her readings of artworks are a major strength of the book. These are not just formal analyses, but also insightful reconstructions of artistic process. We are treated to vibrant descriptions of “chromatic exaggerations,” “thickened brushstrokes [that] decorate the skies,” and a “curvilinear hull of the heaving boat . . . made with flat strokes of color” (105, 143, 57). But besides enlivening the read, her descriptions have major interpretive payoffs. Art is not simply representation, nor only a product of social relations; it is a time-bound procedure—both made through gradual efforts and a maker itself, contributing to ongoing social experience.

Throughout the book, Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber appear as representatives of the so-called “racial art” genre. A term used in early twentieth-century art criticism, “racial art” was made by non-white artists and visibly expressed its makers’ racial identities. Accordingly, art writing looms large; in fact, it inspired the study in the first place. Conducting research on Johnson (the subject of her dissertation), Francis was surprised to discover the overt and unselfconscious use of racialized terminology in period reviews. Marking a shift from the “melting pot” models of Americanization in the late nineteenth century, interwar cultural criticism “was unapologetically particularist” (11).

Francis is ambivalent about this kind of frankness, which allowed for more direct interventions in race’s construction (she argues), but also imposed severe limits on individual freedom. These limitations are more intuitively grasped by modern readers. As a category, racial art amounts to a segregationist practice, effectively ghettoizing its practitioners and putting limits on their expressive potential. Critics perennially sought out “Oriental delicacy” in Kuniyoshi’s work, for example, or “African rhythms” in Johnson’s and “vibrant color” in Weber’s (6). Narrow-minded as it was, racial art was also, however, a generally positive designation, often netting artists good reviews. In her discussion of Weber, Francis examines the comparatively greater success he enjoyed after abandoning his earlier Cubist experiments in favor of Jewish-themed genre scenes. (She does not consider why it is now that the Cubist work appears in survey texts.) Weber’s later style was only moderately abstract, marked by the expressionism that characterized most racial art. Pleasing vanguard and conservative critics alike, expressionism’s very ethos—artistic self-representation—also squared with the expectation that the racial artist should paint her or his own race; essentialism was built right in. Expressionism promised a further, ironic advantage: by expressing particularism (truth-to-self, truth-to-race), the artist could arrive at aesthetic universality, communicating honest, humanistic values to the world beyond herself or himself. In other words, in order to gain entry into the modern, normative, New York City art world, with all its talk of “pure” art and “international” aesthetics, the racial artist was obliged always and again to represent inassimilable difference.

Making Race is organized thematically. Francis’s artists appear interleaved strategically in chapters dedicated to modernism, religious painting, racial portraiture, and landscape. There are some drawbacks to this approach. Although Francis refers readers to texts that detail the painters’ biographies, career chronologies, etc., her discussions would be even more convincing with additional detail on each artist and relevant historical context. Still, braiding the histories of these three artists together is both appealing and progressive. Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber are unified in a kind of ex post facto coalition. This defies the usual tendency to examine hyphenate identities separately, under cover of African American art, Asian American art, or Jewish art. Readers with interests in any of these will mingle in these pages; they will come away with both a refined sense of race’s history and an enlarged sense of its reach.

Still, one could point out that Making Race is limited by the same restrictions it examines. Francis herself admits that any scholarly pursuit conducted in the ethos of so-called “area studies” in the academy (i.e., African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Religious Studies, and so on) just “concretiz[es] the margins,” regardless of whatever positive benefits accrue to bringing attention to otherwise under-studied figures (15). This concern about the perpetuation of racism through the examination of race manifests itself in another way in Francis’s text. The decision to investigate Weber through the lens of race offended the caretakers of his estate, who viewed it as a pernicious revival of Nazi-like discrimination (see note 11, page 157). As a sad consequence, the volume does not include a single illustration of any work by Weber, the most canonically “important” artist in the book, and so the one best positioned to integrate race into histories of modernism. The omission also obstructs the book’s larger goal: to expose race’s plasticity by reminding us that Weber, whom we may not now regard as a minority artist, could not possibly have lived his life outside of ethnicity. (Jewish Americans were not classed as “Caucasian,” Francis explains, until the later twentieth century.) And yet, the incident offers its own lessons. With it, Francis is able to stress both how racial difference can seem to disappear over time and how this disappearance of otherness—or, rather, this ascendance of whiteness—is also a social production, another way, it turns out, of making race.

In fact, throughout the book, Francis explores how race might be revalued as a potentially generative site of artistic enunciation—as a kind of artistic medium, if you will. She repeatedly considers the degree to which the three men might have “recognized the desires of the marketplace and sought to satisfy them”—including, perhaps, the desires for unflattering race portraits (46). In discussing Kuniyoshi’s Execution Scene, a grotesque portrayal of “a marauding Japanese officer” dating to 1943, Francis states that the drawing does “not insistently oppose racist exaggerations” (80). Lest this sound like a nice way of saying that Kuniyoshi was merely perpetuating racist stereotypes, she goes on to maintain that the work plumbs the depths of these exaggerations, exploiting them to reveal the obvious ways in which the representation is not really a person, but just so many jagged and “inflected” pencil-drawn strokes. Wishful thinking or not (and Francis admits that period viewers of racial art were often blind to such deconstructive implications), the argument is compelling. At least Kuniyoshi’s insistent “strangeness” will become visible now as a reminder that race is always a fiction, always fabricated, always reliant, in Francis’s words, on “impossible claims” (80).

In the book’s introduction, Francis lays out a striking sentence. She writes: “If ‘race is social value become perception,’ as historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has asserted, who better than art historians—trained in visual analysis and research methodologies—to consider this phenomenon?” (14) Ultimately, Francis’s inspiring dictum should serve as a forceful rallying cry for all who use art history as a tool for investigating American race.

Jennifer Jane Marshall
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota