Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2018
Tirza True Latimer Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 200 pp.; 11 color ills.; 32 b/w ills.; 43 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780520288867)

The first illustration included in Tirza True Latimer’s most recent book is the oft-reproduced cover to the exhibition catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art formulated by Alfred H. Barr Jr. Latimer makes the point that the manner in which Barr’s timeline has been taken up since its inception has decontexualized it and forced the diagram into a realm of certainty its supposed simplicity could not sustain. Eschewing the linear altogether and drawing on Elizabeth Freeman’s writing on queer theory and time, Latimer focuses on what she describes as the “elliptical.” To quote the author in laying out her intentions for the text, “Eccentric Modernisms represents time, not as a continuous line stretching purposefully from past to future, but as a universe unfurling elliptically” (13).

Eccentric Modernisms is focused on the Neo-Romantic movement, which occupied artists and thinkers such as Erik Satie, Pavel Tchelitchew, Christian Bérard, Kristians Tonny, Eugene Berman, and, by association, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Guillaume Apollinaire. At the heart of the group’s aesthetic was a respect for the power of figuration, and, more specifically, portraiture—a format subject to endless innovation at the hands of its multitalented adherents. To emphasize this end, Latimer spends the first third of her text dedicated to investigating an early product of the group: Dix Portraits (1930), a collection of sympathetic likenesses (many of the artists listed above) produced by Neo-Romantic artists accompanied by word portraits composed by Stein.

Latimer continues interrogating sites of modernist divagation by following the network of Neo-Romantics first consummated in Dix Portraits. In an era in which Otto Dix (who holds no connection to the volume Stein and her coterie compiled) was producing figurative portraiture the likes of which mainstream modernist critics could simply tolerate, the Neo-Romantics leaned into the sentimentality and tenderheartedness inherent to the genre. The connection between the artists and their patrons rings throughout the second and third objects of Eccentric Modernism’s analysis.

After Dix Portraits and her analysis thereof, Latimer focuses the reader’s attention on further collective efforts by the Neo-Romantics: the play Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and American issues of the periodical View (1943–45). The author’s steadfast attention to collectivity is intentional and gracefully consistent throughout the text. This collectivity does not support the hypothesis of the singular genius, which to this day taints ideas of collaboration, originality, and the bearing they have on the production of “pure” art.

By focusing our attention on collectivity, Latimer again returns, symbolically, to Barr’s elaboration on the inevitability of abstraction. The author mentions the canonized critics of modernism only insofar as their work illuminates an adherence to the myth of a unified Modernism. In the process of analyzing the collective efforts of the Neo-Romantics, what is unveiled is that the tenants of modernism were already at work, almost as soon as the concept was named.

Returning to Latimer’s description of her approach as elliptical, she expands on it by considering time as a “universe” (13) or “complex relays across time and space” (14) rather than a line or even a unified plane. The author argues that the Neo-Romantics were overlooked because their universe did not correspond to the most popular and established modern universe being considered by Clement Greenberg and those allied with MoMA’s narrative of America’s pure abstraction as superior. Today, the myth of a single timeline moving forward has been deconstructed enough to allow for uncertainty to be the object of investigation, and as a result, the uncertain position of the Neo-Romantic movement is not resolved but illuminated more completely for the reader’s consideration. Latimer reveals that the Neo-Romantics simultaneously occupied positions of marginality (many were openly queer, others were foreigners, some were people of color) and acceptance, as their social positions were appropriated for Neo-Romantic, “outsider” projects. In existing between marginality and acceptance, the Neo-Romantics achieved a balance between remaining true to their artistic ideals while also staying (as troublesome as their presence was) in the public imagination.

Latimer is skillful in keeping value judgments to herself—what remains important is the fact that the Neo-Romantics represented with their very existence a fragmented modernism. As mentioned, critics such as Greenberg decried the “decadence” of the Neo-Romantics as antagonist to the outspokenly masculine and white Abstract Expressionists, whose art he believed more concretely aligned with modern sentiment in the United States. At present, art historians are comfortable acknowledging that a unified American vision of modernism may never have existed. Even without documentation, this idea is easily acceptable, though Latimer has provided us with primary and secondary sources the likes of which establish the lasting impact of the Neo-Romantics, even before they have received their credit in this volume.

The author steadfastly researches the 1930s and 1940s, being careful not to reveal the future, so to speak, in which queer artists who practiced figuration and portraiture within a personal network of collective production (read, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns) enjoyed greater success than the Neo-Romantics could have imagined. The United States, and the world over, may not have been ready to consider the body as concretely as the Neo-Romantics called their viewers to do. Latimer establishes that the reason for this was not necessarily in the control of Neo-Romantic artists, but rather was due to the confidence of certain critics in a universal narrative for the course of modernism on our society—a confidence that can no longer be so virulently defended.

Looking to the future, scholars continuing investigations into the “success” and “strength” of artistic movements that have not garnered adequate recognition will be tasked with evaluating them outside of familiar benchmarks of recognition. For example, Morris Hirshfield’s (whose eccentric and figurative cover of the October 1945 issue of View provides a visual opposite to Look magazine’s distinctly American and heteronormative cover) work is discussed in terms of it being that which “got Barr fired” (99) from his position as director of MoMA. As more scholarship is produced that accounts for the subjectivity of “success” and “failure,” it will become necessary to gauge this quality outside of the country’s most mainstream institutions. Works like Latimer’s will undoubtedly become important records of the changing vocabulary of modernism, in which the structures that guided modernism’s conception in the United States (MoMA, Greenberg’s criticism, the ideal of abstraction, the words “original,” “style,” “kitsch,” and “pure”) are proven unstable.

Latimer’s text is dedicated “For queer culture makers, experimental historians, and the worlds they imagine.” Indeed, scholars of queer history and of artistic movements will find a wealth of primary sources to use in beginning or continuing deeper research into marginalized perspectives on American artistic movements. More broadly, Latimer disputes the chronology of modernism in the United States and renders it permeable. The text itself offers wide margins as if to emphasize this point—here the reader can begin writing in the facts of their own knowledge and curiosity. Eccentric Modernisms is an excellent starting point for students beginning to innovate the history of modernism. The text also expands the literature on the subject of American art history to include representation as an (early) modernist ideal and sets a precedent for portraiture as an object of contemporary concern.

John H. P. Semlitsch
Graduate Student, University of Texas at Austin