Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation
edited by Susan Davidson
Published by Merrell
352 pages, 2007
An American Comment
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
The topic seems incredibly huge. Too large to credit; too big to slice. Yet there you have it. Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation. You can hold it in your hand. OK: forget that. Most of us won’t hold this book in a single hand. But you can certainly heft it with two. The topic, however, is a different story. It will be more difficult to digest it than it is even to pick it up. This isn’t a book meant to be read in a single sitting or even over a period of weeks. It is, instead, intended to take space in the dialogue that is your ongoing and perhaps inner conversation about art.
If you skip over the letters from sponsors -- the presidents of the Alcoa and Henry Luce foundations -- and the fact that the book supports the "most significant display of American art ever exhibited in China," you still have a story that’s well worth telling. And Susan Davidson, the editor of Art in America and curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum since 2002, certainly knows how to tell this story.
OK: to be perfectly honest, there are aspects of the exhibit connection that are worth re-telling and certainly worth thinking about when you read Art in America. The fact, for instance, that the exhibit -- and with it the book -- respond to the very successful China: 5000 Years, a highly acclaimed and well received Chinese exhibit that toured the United States several years ago.
The resulting book, however, is more than the souvenir of an important exhibit. It is, instead, an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about American art and how it has evolved in a way that is distinct from that of other cultures.
Arguably, this is not a book that would have been this successfully executed without the author’s (though it is perhaps more accurate to say "curator’s" in this instance) enforced distance from the reader. Unlike many -- most? -- art books of this calibre, written with an educated -- even jaded -- reader in mind, Art in America intends a very different audience: a readership perhaps not without art knowledge, but without direct or certainly full knowledge of American art. Davidson has done an incredible job with this aspect of Art in America, creating, in a way, a full introduction to the history of her country. And she’s right: where we’ve been influences not only who we are (though that’s certainly an important piece) but also how we approach our retelling of who we are. That is, we are what we paint and collect, or something very like that.
For instance, in an essay by Michael Leja called "Paradoxes in American Art" we are told about the duality of a young nation set both on independence and a desire for the order and sanity of the old ways:
The same turn is evident in the design for the official seal of the United States. This seal, designed by multiple contributors over several years, incorporates traditional symbols associated with powerful authority in Europe, some from notoriously oppressive monarchs. The eagle had been a sign of imperial power since antiquity, and the American version was adapted from that used by the Hapsburg emperor Charles V in the sixteenth century.
There’s more. Equally fascinating, but you get the idea. Through various expert essays and beautiful reproductions of important American works through the years, Davidson leads us skillfully right into the present. The titles of each of the book’s six parts tell that story: Colonization and Rebellion (1700-1830); Expansion and Fragmentation (1830-1880); Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism (1880-1915); Modernism and Regionalism (1915-45); Prosperity and Disillusionment (1945-80); Multiculturalism and Globalization (1980-present).
Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation is a beautiful book, deeply interesting and skillfully executed. It makes an important statement on the topic at hand. If you have an interest in art in America, you’ll want to be sure this book stays within easy reach. | July 2007
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.