Review of the Week: 5/8/17

Explore American art history in this Review of the Week.

America after the fall : painting in the 1930s

ed. by Judith A. Barter; with essays by Judith A. Barter et al Art Institute of Chicago, 2016
201p bibl index, 9780300214857 $50.00, 9780865592827 $30.00

Historians of American art routinely tease out stylistic and thematic qualities that identify Americanness in the art they study. The Art Institute of Chicago offers seven essays that explore the 1930s as a decade of diversity, when debates and struggles over style and content made their way onto local stages and into federal work projects. The contributors unfurl complexities of the moment: competing politics and aesthetic philosophies, underdogs and power structures, disparate sources, iconography, intentions. In addition, they reveal many “uniquely American” artworks originally endorsed as inheritors of European traditions. The title’s “fall” refers to economic circumstances—the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. Artistic directions expressed the nation’s social, economic, and historical realities and multiple ideological identities. One essay examines figurative painting of the misshapen, ill-fortuned, and chaotic in American society, here understood as having affinities with Daumier, Goya, and burgeoning popular culture. Another argues that modernist art was defended as a crucial barometer of advances in US society. The author rightly foregrounds the clearly articulated writings of Stuart Davis, who deemed abstract art an agent influencing contemporary life. Produced for an international exhibition, this significant volume considers issues that resonate for contemporary scholars and public alike.

Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.
Reviewer: A. Schoenfeld, Pratt Institute
Subject: Humanities – Art & Architecture – Fine Arts
Choice Issue: Dec 2016