When Abstract Expressionism burst on the American scene in the 1940s, it elbowed another kind of American expressionism off the stage. Vivid evocations of the poor and disenfranchised in paintings by Jack Levine, Bernece Berkman and many others were now seen as stodgy and unsophisticated. In American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920-1950
, cultural historian Bram Dijkstra argues that a generation of important left-wing artists, many of them Jewish, were the victims of intellectual, political and corporate interests bent on promoting a brighter, shinier United States. Unfortunately, Dijkstra undercuts his thesis with a haranguing tone, unconvincing analyses of individual works, and a dated view of abstraction as inherently "anti-humanist." His sweeping denunciation of "Nordic" (i.e., white, Protestant) artists leads him to view even an heroically scaled painting of a black soldier by John Steuart Currya "Nordic" artist collected by the NAACPas a racist cartoon. At the heart of this contentious volume are 233 illustrations by dozens of little-known artists united by a passion for social justice. These works can be seen in a traveling exhibition at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art from May 16 to August 24, 2003.Cathy Curtis
From Publishers Weekly
The conventional story of American visual art generally pegs postwar Abstract Expressionism, in the hands of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, etc., as the first truly mature manifestation of a national aesthetic, followed by Pop Art and minimalism as its glamorous and cerebral heirs. This polemical picture book seeks to overturn that history, finding in paintings of the pre-AbEx era a rich and undervalued tradition, and an antidote to a 20th-century art history that the author characterizes as fundamentally effete. Collecting images from provincial museums across the country, Dijkstra mixes well-known artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Georgia O'Keefe with consistently under-appreciated talents such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Charles Burchfield, along with a canon of fascinating unknowns. Together, they flesh out an alternative history of much more humanistic dimensions than the hermetic and apolitical legacy of the postwar decades, with art that is decidedly more earthy and populist and socially engaged. Although Dijkstra pads the case with some sentimental choices-noble sharecroppers and grungy smelting factories and the like-his case stands as a convincing rebuff to the exhausted narratives of contemporary advanced art. Moreover, it resonates interestingly with the sources and practices of emerging artists in the post-conceptual era. This is a provocative, important book.
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