Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Putting the Art Back in Art History

Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.


Putting the Art Back in Art History

Christopher S. Wood’s A History of Art History will be eye-opening for anyone who cares about art.

Barry Schwabsky


Putting the Art Back in Art History

Christopher S. Wood’s A History of Art History will be eye-opening for anyone who cares about art.
Its plain-spoken title makes Christopher S. Wood’s new book, A History of Art History, sound pretty dry — solo per gli addetti ai lavori, as the Italians say: of interest to specialists only, or maybe even just to subspecialists. Historiography is a tough sell.
But this substantial volume is more than just a chronicle of half-forgotten scholarship or a thrashing out of methodological issues of little import. In fact, A History of Art History will be eye-opening for anyone who cares about art, and besides, it’s not really about art history, although it’s true that Wood spends the greater part of his space on the work of academic art historians.
But that’s because their writings are so intimately linked to his true subject, which might well have served as an alternate title: I’d have called this book Art and Historical Consciousness. Or perhaps instead of “historical consciousness,” I might have borrowed a phrase from the subtitle of Hayden White’s famous book Metahistory (1973) and called Wood’s book Art and the Historical Imagination.
Artists are acutely aware of the historicity of their work, and so it’s hardly surprising that one traditional starting point for narratives of the history of art history — though it’s not Wood’s starting point — is with a history composed by an artist, namely Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), whose first edition was published in 1550, though a substantially larger version, the one best known today, came out in 1568.
Wood’s chronicle starts much earlier than that. In his Introduction he cites the second century Greek geographer Pausanius, whose detailed accounts of temples, tombs, and the like made him a commentator on buildings and statuary, and the first chapter proper leads off with a look at the 11th-century History of the Bishops of Hamburg by one Adam of Bremen, who in one passage endeavors to explain the significance of some statues of Swedish gods found in a temple in Uppsala.
For Adam, according to Wood, the iconography of these statues can be understood by Christians who do not accept the Swedes’ pagan beliefs; in fact, Christians can understand the Swedes’ art even better than the Swedes do themselves, since it is possible for an outsider like Adam to see that these northern gods are, as Wood summarizes, “mere imitations of the Mediterranean gods” (such as Mars) who had already been definitively written off as untruths by Christianity. True knowledge comes with the dissipation of an original illusion.
Adam of Bremen was an iconographer of sorts, but he seems not to have paid much attention to another historically variable dimension of the arts, namely style or technique. For the Renaissance, this would be an issue. Just as there could be a true religion, which some peoples in certain times have grasped while those in other periods and places remained ignorant, so there might be a true style — and the men of the 15th century felt certain they were heading there.
“Would you not esteem my judgment as poor,” asked one humanist of the day, “if I, desiring to be a painter, imitated Giotto more than Raphael? Even though Giotto is so strangely praised by your Vasari?” Looking historically, one could see that the best efforts of one time could not match those of another, even if awkward efforts of yore had helped make the more sophisticated present possible. It’s a perspective that allows for a very limited sort of historical relativism: artists of the past may not have been as skilled as those in the present, so Vasari thought, but one could still discern those who were better, more advanced, than their contemporaries.
But Wood points out that, in an era when literary learning was prized above visual acuity, the importance of the New Testament, which, with its “simple, vernacular style […] had special prestige because of its proximity to Christ,” lent authority to an intuition that the simplicity of earlier times was superior to contemporary worldliness.
In art, too, old works began to be prized for that reason alone; for instance, the Flemish painter and writer Karel van Mander, a couple of generations after Vasari, used the art of previous generations to disparage “the hard or angular modern manner which looks so unattractive.” In contrast to Vasari, as Wood says, “This is not a relativizing apology for the deficiencies of the old painters but an ironic overturning of the modern norm: van Mander is saying that the old compositions really were better, simpler, more effective.”
To this day, Vasarian stories of contemporary superiority are still duking it out with van Mander-like odes to the virtues of past practice. Clement Greenberg’s progressive history, which aimed toward Apollonian balance, and what Wood calls “Wilhelm Worringer’s sympathy for the barbarians” — two sides of modernism — are 20th-century manifestations of the same dichotomy.
It’s important that artists such as Vasari and van Mander were also writers. The blossoming of artists’ writing shared a material basis with an increase in the importance of drawing. “The conflict between past and present intensified when artists began to record their impressions” (on newly affordable paper) “and were not so dependent on their memories,” Wood points out. Artists began to collect drawings. And, of course, to collect and write down testimonies as to the doings of their precursors and colleagues. Thus the importance of Vasari: his book, “more than any other European text up to this point, established a feedback loop between writing and art-making.”
It is the changing shape and reach of this loop that Wood endeavors to chronicle in the remainder of his book. Art history is not entirely a disinterested practice intended to reconstruct an image of the past, but has a bearing on artistic practice in the present. What he perhaps does not emphasize sufficiently is that the comparability of different art practices — which is precisely what makes history useful to the artist — presumes a certain kind of formalism. It’s already there in Vasari, whose “ekphrases bring icons, altarpieces, decorated organ shutters and worldly pictures displayed in banquet halls and bedrooms to a common plane. He would seem to have adopted a secular understanding of art, that is, a capacity to assign value to paintings independent of their referential claims […] or their contribution to ritualized communications with divinity.” With this, we have already arrived at something like André Malraux’s “museum without walls” — just add photomechanical reproduction.
The history Wood traces is basically European (and, eventually, American), but not entirely Eurocentric. He understands that “the reciprocal, self-perpetuating relationship between the production and the commentary of art” — that Vasarian loop — was actually something that had long since been developed in China; unknowingly, the West was playing catch-up.
His chronology ends at around 1960, with the general art historical surveys of E.H. Gombrich and H.W. Janson, a pessimist and an optimist respectively about the art of their own times. The former adumbrated “an obscure future where art may be unrecognizable and where the entire modern project of art history breaks down” — that is, a time in which art loses all sense of definition — where Janson saw “a continuity of purpose carried by form” from past to future.
Whose story does Wood find more convincing, that of Gombrich or of Janson? Without Gombrich’s nostalgia, Wood emphasizes the half-truth that “the refusal of the authority of the past is the very program of modern art,” implying that an irreversible break has occurred. But does denying the unimpeachable authority of the past make history unusable?
Wood points out that contemporary image-based culture — the profusion he can barely sum up by listing “advertising, fashion, celebrities, television, tattoos, toys, comics, pornography, politics, iPhones, and stuff in general” — is impossible for art history to grasp, even though it is to a great extent the content of contemporary art. But his belief that today’s art “is no longer preoccupied with form” is one that would hardly be accepted by most artists or anyone else who is involved in contemporary art on a daily basis.
The somber tone of Wood’s conclusion suggests that he is a historian to the core, prey to a melancholy such as Nietzsche might have predicted. While his narrative of the historical imagination in art is full of lively twists and turns — a baroque profusion that I could not imagine trying to summarize in the brief compass of a review such as this — he finds only entropy in the present.
As for me, he makes me want to pick up once again that old tome of Janson’s that I haven’t cracked since I was in college. I know it must be around here somewhere. Wood considers Janson naïve for believing that “there are no breaks and no sense that art in the modern world has either lost its way or come into its own.” Janson’s view, which assumes that most times, however tumultuous, are more ordinary than they may appear from within, just seems realistic. Tales of catastrophe and transcendence are great for rousing the historian out of his saturnine torpor, but not so helpful to the daily practice of painting.
A History of Art History (2019) by Christopher S. Wood is published by Princeton University Press.

Provocative Art Books to Check Out

10 Eye-Popping and Provocative Art Books to Check Out Right Now

The Acid-Free Art Book Market brought forth booksellers in tune with the cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist, offering books on detention center architecture, monographs in translation, and new underground periodicals written by people living in the margins.

Renée Reizman

Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.


10 Eye-Popping and Provocative Art Books to Check Out Right Now

The Acid-Free Art Book Market brought forth booksellers in tune with the cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist, offering books on detention center architecture, monographs in translation, and new underground periodicals written by people living in the margins.

Acid-Free Art Book Market (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — With the holiday season right around the corner, Blum & Poe’s second annual Acid-Free Art Book Market was the perfect place to find gift-giving inspiration. More than 90 vendors laid out a plethora of unique, intricately designed books that would upgrade any art lover’s coffee table. There were stunning feats in book binding, eye-popping graphic design, and rare limited edition prints. Acid-Free also brought forth booksellers in tune with our current cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist, offering art books on detention center architecture, monographs in translation, and new underground periodicals written by people living in the margins.
While the book market has come to a close, you can still find these titles in your local bookstores and online. Below are some highlights that will add a new dimension to your bookcase or pleasantly surprise at a White Elephant exchange.


Contemporary Suburbium by Ed and Deanna Templeton (Nazraeli Press)

Contemporary Suburbium by Ed and Deanna Templeton

The pages of this book, sandwiched between unbound hard-covers, unfold like an accordion. The collection is a two-in-one combination of contemporary photography from husband-and-wife duo Ed and Deanna Templeton. Known for illustrating Southern California life through skateboarding (Ed) and leisure (Deanna), this collection of suburban slices of life from Huntington Beach shows the slow-changing, simplicity of days spent in tract housing. Though most of the photos have been taken in the last two years, the black and white duotone pages portray Orange County as a nostalgic wonderland.

Beatriz Gonzaléz: Diary Of Guernica / Diary Of A Senseless Work (Zolo Press)

Beatriz Gonzaléz

In 1981, Colombian artist Beatriz Gonzaléz reimagined Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” as a massive, 40-foot-wide tiled mural called “Mural Para Fábrica Socialista. Over the course of the year it took to complete the project, Gonzaléz chronicled her labor, musings, and creative process in a diary, which Mexico City-based Zolo Press has translated and published in conjunction with Gonzaléz’s first large-scale retrospective in the United States at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. In addition to the diary, Zolo Press released a limited-run audiobook in LP format. The cover of the 280 editions are to-scale fragments of Gonzaléz’s mural, and are signed by the artist herself.

Dan Graham: Drawings 1965–1969 (Publication Studio)

Dan Graham, Drawings: 1965–1969 

There were a number of Dan Graham books at Acid-Free, signaling the conceptual artist’s enduring legacy. Though Graham is well known for his architectural interventions, notably spiraling glass pavilions that blur the line between a sculpture and building, Publication Studio instead reproduces Graham’s lesser viewed graph and typewriter drawings. The minimalist, geometric designs show the kinship between Graham and other artists he championed, like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. Originally published in 1990 for an exhibition at Galerie Bleich-Rossi in Graz, Austria, the book also includes reproductions of German-language advertisements that ran in the original catalogue.

The Contemporary Zeitgeist

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention by Tings Chak

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (courtesy Tings Chak)

Chak is a Hong Kong-born multidisciplinary artist and migrant justice organizer based in Toronto, and created this illustrative book as a way of charting detainees journeys through Ontario detention centers. “In these pages, you will find an incomplete view into the world of migrant detention in Canada, explored at scales descending from physical landscapes to the human body,” Chak writes. The architecture is striking in its banality; bureaucratic, sterile, and repetitive, a detention center is a mind-numbing maze with few windows and omnipresent security cameras. Chak also includes an interview with Martin, a former detainee from Gambia, who was held for 36 months without charge or trial. Martin led a hunger strike that led to the creation of Canada’s End Immigration Detention Network, to which Chak donates all the royalties from the sale of this book.

The HIV Howler, edited by Althea Black and Jessica Whitbread

The HIV Howler (via Instagram)

In the spirit of grassroots publications that thrived in the 1980s and early ’90s, Black and Whitbread have created a periodical exclusively featuring contributions from writers with HIV Positive statuses. The HIV Howler’s tagline, “transmitting art + activism,” acutely describes how the paper gives artists a platform to speak on the issues’ themes like ”criminalization-medicalization,” which juxtaposes how medical institutions villanize HIV/AIDS patients, but also gatekeeps access to medical treatment, and “mentor-mother,” women healthcare workers living with HIV who educate positive mothers and pregnant women who may be raising a child with HIV. Black, who lead a discussion at Acid-Free, told Hyperallergic that she sees the newspaper “as a curatorial project for artists with HIV, and it expands the conversation past the hubs of NYC and San Francisco. We publish globally.” Contributors hail from Poland, Brazil, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, and more. Currently, The HIV Howler’s biggest obstacle is funding shipments worldwide, and purchasing an issue for $5 helps Black and Whitbread freely distribute the publication abroad.

Molatham by Scott Caruth (Trolley Books)

Molatham (image courtesy Printed Matter)

In Arabic, the word molatham literally translates as “to cover one’s face,” but in the West Bank, the phrase is used to describe anyone resisting Israeli Occupation. In a book-length monologue, Caruth offers a meta examination of portrait studios in Palestine, places where people who typically remain anonymous out of fear of persecution. Molatham documents six years of research Caruth conducted in two prominent Palestinian photography studios, tracing subjects’ paths from standing in front of the lens to their likeness being mass distributed on the streets. 

Creative Discovery

An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour (Atelier Éditions)

An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

This book highlights pieces from the collection of rare pigments preserved at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard University. The center has more than 2,500 pigments, and, according to an Atelier Éditions representative at Acid-Free, “shows the impact of color pigmentation through art history.” While popular in their day, some pigments could never pass FDA regulations in the present; bright yellows contained monkey urine, and rich greens used for textile dyes pulled their color from poisonous arsenic. “Pigments affects how art looked, produced, and conceived in that specific time and tells a story.”

Discovering Peary Land by Todd R. Forsgren

Discovering Peary Land

Forsgren, who was managing his table at Acid-Free, described his book as “an imagined journey to Greenland comprised of archived photos and maps smeared by polar projections.” Between 1891-92, Robert E. Peary made an expedition to Peary Land, a remote peninsula in Northern Greenland, and put it on the map — with great cartographic errors that directly led to the demise of other arctic explorers. It would take 20 years to correct his mistakes and make the polar desert navigable. Though Peary Land is now home to a small research station, it remains difficult to reach, and satellite imagery struggles to recreate the landscape on Google Maps. Forsgen’s book is divided into three parts: the first uses Peary’s archival images to tell a fictional story of its discovery, the second showcases Peary Land’s glitched, technicolor projections, and the last part culls geotagged photos from Flickr, which place palm trees and bustling waterfronts in desolate Greenland.

The New Woman’s Survival Catalogedited by Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie (Primary Information)

The New Woman’s Survival Catalog 

First published in 1973, this guide to womanhood — from abortion, to marriage, to art, to self-defense — was an influential text of the second-wave feminist movement. Inspired by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which advocated for self-sufficient, countercultural living and shared how to obtain products and resources to do so, The New Woman’s Survival Catalog compiled a vast network of safe spaces for women and recommended art, film, and books that pushed an aspirational cultural shift towards feminist-forward thinking. To make the book, Grimstad and Rennie took a road trip across the country, interviewing lesbians living in communes in Atlanta and women farmers building barns in Northern California. Though the catalogue had blind spots regarding the spectrum of gender identity, it unearthed the breadth of women declaring their independence across the country. Sensing that today’s generation of women are hungry for more radical change in society, Primary Information has re-issued the New Woman’s Survival Catalog to guide young activists. 

Cassandra Press Readers, edited by Kandis Williams, Taylor Doran, and Jordan Nassar (Cassandra Press)

Cassandra Press Readers

Relive your days in academia with the various course readers put together by lo-fi Cassandra Press. “They’ve always been a part of my art practice,” explains Kandis Williams, a Cassandra Press co-founder who creates  assemblages of theoretical texts around themes like misogynoir, interraciality and PTSD, porn and color, and Black Twitter. The readers are meant to start larger conversations on sociopolitical issues, and particularly emphasize critical race studies. For those trying to catch up with heated online discourse, these texts are a valuable resource for better understanding the tensions between fascisim vs. anti-fa, the myth of cancel culture, or why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a revelation.
The Acid-Free Art Book Market took place at Blum & Poe (2727 La Cienega Blvd, Culver City, Los Angeles) November 1–3. Hyperallergic was a media sponsor.