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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 153-154
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Allan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 289 pp.
Ours is a time of extravagant claims: David Lehman called his 1998 study of the New York School poets The Last Avant-Garde—an aggressive title that tried to preempt such later groups as the Language Poets from claiming to be an even newer avant-garde. In a similar vein, Antliff—though with less at stake since the principals are safely dead—calls the anarchist movement of the World War I period "the first American avant-garde" and goes so far as to announce that "anarchism was the formative force lending coherence and direction to modernism in the United States between 1908 and 1920." And further: the artists in question—Robert Henri, Elie Nadelman, Man Ray, Adolf Wolff, Rockwell Kent, among others—"cannot be understood apart from anarchism." This second proposition may be true if we accept Antliff's list, but with the exception of Man Ray his "anarchists" were hardly innovative aesthetically, their "avant-gardism" being more properly a political radicalism and protocommunism that, as has often been the case, went hand in hand with a rather conventional realism (Henri), a mainstream modernist abstraction (Nadelman, Woolff), and, at worst, the sensationalist, [End Page 153] pseudo-Blakean poster art of Kent. Antliff makes much of Emma Goldman's role in the various anarchist cenacles, but at a certain point one wonders what art has to do with it all. Nevertheless, this beautifully produced book contains a wealth of information and shrewd observation about the anarchist scene of the early twentieth century—its various political formations, its journals, its relation to the Armory Show of 1913, its impact on such better-known avant-garde artists as Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. As a historical and cultural study, Anarchist Modernism fills an important lacuna in modernist studies.
Marjorie Perloff is Sadie Dernham Patek Professor Emerita in the Humanities at Stanford University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her many books include Wittgenstein's Ladder, Radical Artifice, The Futurist Moment, The Dance of the Intellect, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Poetry On and Off the Page, and, most recently, Twenty-First-Century Modernism.