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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 445-449

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Annals of Américanisme:
Making our Art Modern

Michael Kammen

Wanda M. Corn. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xxiii + 447 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $50.00.

Wanda M. Corn, professor of art history at Stanford, has produced a huge, important, intriguing, and well-informed volume about the genesis of modernism in American art. 1 Her aptly chosen title is taken from an observation made by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1976: "As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel--the Great American Play--the Great American Poetry . . . . I was quite excited over our country and I knew that at that time [the 1920s] almost any one of those great minds would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn't even want to live in New York--how was the Great American Thing going to happen?"

Although the book is very richly textured and complex in many respects, its structure is fairly straightforward. A shrewd and lengthy introduction uses a little known work by Paul Rosenfeld as a point of departure: Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns (1924). The title of Corn's pronaos, "Spiritual America," refers to the transcendental earnestness of both Rosenfeld as a romantic modernist advocate along with the dominant figure that he idealized, Alfred Stieglitz. Then there are three chapters, grouped as "the Transatlantics," that highlight Marcel Duchamp (especially his controversial urinal titled Fountain [1917]), Gerald Murphy (particularly his pre-pop icon Razor [1924]), and Joseph Stella (notably his fabulous "altarpiece" titled The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted [1920-22]). All of the internationalism and américanisme emphasized in that section resonate well with Daniel T. Rodgers's splendid new book, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998), which displays on its jacket cover a detail of an ocean liner's huge prow from the image L'Atlantique by A.M. Cassandre. These two studies could scarcely be more complementary.

Part 2 of Corn's work, called "The Rooted," highlights Charles Demuth (especially The Figure 5 in Gold, a "poster painting" from 1928), Georgia [End Page 445] O'Keeffe (emphasizing Cow's Skull--Red, White and Blue [1931]), and Charles Sheeler (detailing Home, Sweet Home [1931]). Each of these subtly nuanced and deeply contextualized chapters contains references to many other works by the same artists along with inspirational sources and pictures created by contemporaries. Corn connects with people and texts as well as images of importance to her selected dramatis personae, ranging from skyscrapers and American plumbing (which fascinated Europeans) to southwestern landscapes and the early Americana that so appealed to the fastidious Sheeler.

Corn is superb on the changing iconography of New York City, from Childe Hassam as a point of departure to Joseph Stella, John Marin, and such European visitors as Max Weber, Francis Picabia, and Albert Gleizes. Moreover; the book is chock full of ironic revelations, such as Georgia O'Keeffe sending bleached bones from cows and horses in New Mexico to Lake George so that she could continue to pursue her new aesthetic fascination even when Stieglitz expected her to rejoin him back in New York in 1930-31!

Needless to say, Corn is not the first historian to describe and explain the origins of an American modernist aesthetic. The revisionist nature of her project is multidimensional. Her artists, mainly born in the 1870s and 1880s, were notably responsive to commercial and popular culture, to the advent of an electrified world in which billboards and advertising posters seemed ubiquitous, in which jazz emerged as a fresh, exhilarating phenomenon, and above all, in which technological and industrial innovations simply demanded newly appropriate aesthetic responses. Nevertheless, Corn is acutely aware of the variable and contrasting responses of Stieglitz (spiritualist) and Duchamp (materialist) that defined a kind of polarized magnetic field...


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