THE GREAT AMERICAN THING: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935
By Wanda M. Corn. Univ. of California Press. 470 pp. $50
Its smooth white surface evoked ancient Greece, and its sleek curves echoed Constantin Brancusi’s modernism, yet R. Mutt’s Fountain was barred from the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Why? It was a urinal, and therefore offensive to the artists and patrons organizing the show under the tutelage of the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. The punch line, of course, is that Duchamp himself had pseudonymously submitted Fountain in order to expose the provincialism of his "progressive and modern" American colleagues.
Or so the tale is told by most art historians. To them, Fountain inspired the conceptual art that today scorns beautiful objects in favor of provocative public gestures. To Corn, an art historian at Stanford University, the story is not so simple. In her fascinating study of modernism’s first American phase (during and after World War I), she argues that Duchamp, along with other transatlantiques accustomed to the filth and stink of the Paris pissoir, truly admired American plumbing and saw its gleaming, efficient products as beautiful objects in their own right.
In recent decades art history has split into two modes of inquiry: the formal analysis of the connoisseur and the contextual approach of the cultural theorist. By combining the two, Corn uncovers a rich and often contradictory mix of motives for each object she scrutinizes, from Duchamp’s "readymades" to Joseph Stella’s hallucinatory painting of the Brooklyn Bridge to Georgia O’Keeffe’s stark still lifes of cattle skulls. Corn argues that American modernism really began in the 1910s and 1920s, not in the 1940s, as urged by postwar critics such as Clement Greenberg. The probing, often playful dialogue between European visitors and emigrés (Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia) and homegrown artists (O’Keeffe, Gerald Murphy, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler) set the terms for a century-long debate over what it means to make art in America.
Corn dissects the antagonism between Alfred Stieglitz (and his followers), who embraced a romantic "soil and spirit" idea of art, and the "machine age" aesthetic imported by Europeans influenced by futurism, cubism, and Dada. To the latter, America was not a vast country with a complex history but rather an edgy, jazzy place (they rarely ventured outside New York City) whose skyscrapers, bridges, and bright lights were icons of modernity. The author takes amused pleasure in the enthusiasms of the Europeans; especially acute is her account of how the wealthy, Yale-educated expatriate Murphy, with his precise, hardedged renderings of commercial products such as safety razors, fountain pens, and watches, fulfilled "French expectations of how a modern American was supposed to paint and act."
Ultimately, though, her sympathy lies with those Americans—Demuth, O’Keeffe, and Sheeler—who learned from the Europeans but also got out from under their expectations to create a way of seeing that was both modernist and deeply rooted in the American experience. "It is more difficult in America to work," Demuth wrote in 1921, then added, "perhaps that will add a quality." This book comes as close as any to capturing that elusive quality.