Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2018
Thomas Crow No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art Sydney: Power Publications, 2017. 144 pp.; 50 color ills. Paperback $30.00 (9780909952990)

The role that religion has played in the cultural production of the last three centuries is something that many art historians have been slow to recognize and/or hesitant to acknowledge. The potential pitfalls of pursuing this subject are myriad, the most obvious being that of appearing to endorse any theological doctrine—a cardinal sin against post-Enlightenment scholarly disinterestedness. For historians of modern art, consideration of religion is particularly difficult given the extent to which the avant-garde has counted works with overt religious content as inferior or kitsch. However, a number of scholars—among them James Elkins, David Morgan, and Mark C. Taylor—have prompted a vibrant debate around the role of religion in modern visual and material culture. Despite the fact that this body of literature has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s, it has remained on the fringes of modernist art history.

With No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art, Thomas Crow unexpectedly adds his voice to this dialogue. A concise volume consisting of a series of case studies, No Idols engages many of the issues and paradoxes regularly asserted by scholars such as Elkins and Morgan, and to a reader familiar with existing work in this field, the first few pages of No Idols offer somewhat self-evident claims. However, the real substance of the book is in the individual chapters, which are a revelation of what is indeed missing in much of the scholarship on modern religious art and visual culture: consistently invigorating formal analysis as the starting point of historical investigation.

Crow stages his intervention through the lens of “idolatry,” or, more accurately, “non-idolatrous” visual forms—that is, works that espouse religious language or doctrines in covert ways. A key moment for non-idolatrous religious art was the flourishing of Jansenism (a puritanical strain of Roman Catholicism) in eighteenth-century France. Crow’s founding case study concentrates on a humble still life by Jean-Baptiste Chardin now known as The White Tablecloth, which originally functioned as a fireplace screen. For Crow, the Jansenist resistance to the pomposity of religious art is crystallized in Chardin’s somewhat oddly rendered still life, which quite literally stood on the margins of quotidian domesticity.

Coinciding with the French Enlightenment, the rise of Jansenism appropriately sets the stage for a study that aims to challenge many entrenched assumptions about secularism. The chronological leap that follows—from early eighteenth-century France to the mid-twentieth-century United States—may provoke a sense of whiplash for some readers. Despite the occasional nod to modernist self-reflexivity in the Chardin chapter (e.g., the white tablecloth functioning as “a virtual surrogate for the canvas support beneath,” 16), there are numerous rich examples that could have been culled from the intervening years. However, there is merit in Crow’s approach: beginning with Chardin grounds the reader in the birth of modern secularism, which continues to inform the resistance to theological questions in modern art and art history. Crow’s text aims toward brevity and clarity rather than comprehensiveness, and the chronological gap is thus forgivable. Considering, however, that many of the overarching claims made in the book’s introduction have been frequently rehearsed, the Chardin material might have functioned more effectively as its replacement.

Notwithstanding the lack of historical contiguity, the deeply satisfying analysis that constitutes the first chapter extends through the second, “Pulverised Idols in the Art of Mark Rothko.” Sidelining Rothko’s Jewish heritage, Crow identifies the artist’s recuperations of Christian themes, which, although they “could not have been more secularised,” make his work “some of the most uncompromisingly metaphysical art in the Christian tradition” (35). Most intriguingly, Crow sees in Rothko’s reversal of figure and ground a modernist corollary to the Girona Beatus manuscript touted by Meyer Schapiro (in whose intellectual circle the artist participated). A brief digression on Schapiro’s research in Spain will resonate, perhaps uncomfortably, with art historians. Schapiro’s letters from this period, which describe his highly personal, emotive responses to monastic life, stand in marked contrast to his public commitment to Marxism. This incident in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed art historians (Crow refers to Schapiro’s “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos” as “arguably one of the greatest articles ever written by an art historian,” 36) serves as a pointed reminder of the contradictions that often play out in doggedly secularist approaches to art history.

Chapter 3 offers an extended analysis of the mid-century New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, whom Crow identifies as perhaps the “single indispensable artist” for his study (55). Demonstrating the adept manner in which McCahon mobilized modernist abstraction and semiotics, Crow delves more deeply into the consequences of scripture in modern art, suggesting that the artist brought text to the center of the work in a manner that “has virtually no precedent” (70). At first glance, it may appear that the inclusion of a non-canonical artist in an otherwise familiar canon is a consequence of the publisher’s location—No Idols is the inaugural volume in the Power Polemics series published by the University of Sydney. However, Crow’s case for McCahon is highly convincing and, I would argue, the most significant polemic of the book. A painting like I AM (1954), with its assertively volumetric rendering of God’s declaration to Moses, oscillates between modernist self-reflexivity, the bold graphic statements of the burgeoning Pop movements, and the foundations of Judeo-Christian theology. McCahon’s work is perhaps the most significant and refreshing example of the inextricability of modernism and religious tradition, and certainly justifies the artist’s position at the center of Crow’s book.

Chapters 4 (“Incarnations of Robert Smithson”) and 5 (“He’s Not There: James Turrell in the 1960s”) return the reader to familiar postwar protagonists. In the first case, Crow demonstrates that the religious themes Smithson pursued in his early career, generally brushed aside in art-historical literature, continue through familiar works such as Spiral Jetty. According to Crow, scholarly resistance to reading Christian themes in Smithson’s oeuvre derives largely from a persistent clinging to the myth of the artist as “either the consummate secular intellectual of American art, or, as a black-clad, quasi-demonic figure stalking the western landscape” (134). Turrell’s Quaker roots, on the other hand, are a central part of the artist’s biography, and are shown here to sit somewhat awkwardly in the milieu of minimalism’s triumph.

The book’s final chapter, “Conclusion and a Return to Catholicism,” functions more as a coda, with a fascinating but all too brief examination of the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent. The progressive nun’s artistic run-ins with conservative Catholic authorities provide thematic symmetry with the opening story of Chardin (not to mention her coded evocation of the Eucharist in Wonderbread). The final paragraphs of the book circle back to Smithson, who, Crow assures the reader, is not “the culmination or summation of the book,” but nonetheless offers the most thorough “metaphysical vocation” among the artists discussed (134). Smithson’s central position in the narratives of postwar art has largely fallen into the realm of “redundancy and diminishing returns” (134). For Crow, with characteristically powerfully rhetoric, this “points toward a gap that cannot be filled, an obscurity that cannot be illuminated, until the reigning interdiction of theology is lifted” (134).

The book’s subtitle, The Missing Theology of Art, suggests that something definitive and broadly pertinent to art history is offered within its pages. But the real contribution of No Idols is to the narratives of art history from the eighteenth century forward. That said, it is telling that scholars who have addressed modern religious art and visual culture are almost entirely absent from Crow’s book. However, there is a large expanse separating Crow’s intervention from much of the literature, which is focused on objects with overt religious content. A significant proportion of that material would fall into the Greenbergian category of “kitsch”—David Morgan, for instance, has devoted many pages to sentimental images by artists such as Warner Sallman and Heinrich Hofmann. Crow notes that in the mid-twentieth-century United States, there were “decorative and devotional illustrations of religion, but next to none that grasped theological questions in the form of actual art” (125, my emphasis). This “decorative and devotional” imagery undoubtedly includes the objects that scholars like Morgan effectively argue have done much to shape modern experience, religious or otherwise.

However, Crow’s points of entry for No Idols—more or less canonical modern artists—are constructive given the realities of the art world. Despite the growth of scholarship in the realm of religion and modern art, cultural institutions remain wary of devoting exhibition space to this subject. Speaking of McCahon, Crow suspects that “were his paintings to receive adequate exposure in London or New York, the dominance of biblical passages in his word-imagery would turn many viewers away before they might assess his achievement” (9).1 This type of viewer seems the ideal audience for No Idols. For the scholar of religion and/or modern art, Crow’s use of loaded terminology (modernism, theology, idolatry) without thorough unpacking will raise red flags. Likewise, in the context of this book “religion” really means Christianity, with denominational distinctions playing out in minor ways. However, attempting to properly address these issues might have buried the commendable art-historical work that is the book’s real achievement. Despite one’s hopes that Crow’s polemic may garner more attention for the types of works he examines, the value of No Idols is less in its appeal for a renewed investigation of religion and modernism (although an appeal coming from a scholar such as Crow certainly carries appreciable weight). Rather, it is in the close attention to the objects themselves, without a knee-jerk resistance to theological underpinnings—something that has indeed been largely missing from the histories of modern art.

1. Indeed, when religion and modern art has been the subject of major exhibitions, it has often been couched in the vaguer language of “spirituality” or “transcendence” (as in the case of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago’s 1996 show Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives). It would not be a stretch to presume that some visitors to the now defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City entered the space with concern that there was some hidden proselytizing agenda at work.

Sarah Schaefer
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee