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  • Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art by Tirza True Latimer
  • Laura Guy
Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art. Tirza True Latimer. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. Pp. 200. $60.00 (cloth).

Modernism always required others. Perhaps this is true of any field of thought or artistic movement. Classification determines what a thing is not as much as it specifies what a thing is. Yet the ways in which otherness is constituted through definition vary. Early on in Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art, Tirza True Latimer returns to the moment in which abstract expressionism emerged as the preferred language of modernism. The jettisoning of figuration from the project of American modernism, Latimer argues, also amounted to a rejection of the social relations that representational practices have often affirmed. Whereas the idea of the eccentric could risk fetishizing the outsider status of an individual maker, Latimer instead conjures an experience of otherness that was shared by a community of artists.

Working from the edges, Eccentric Modernism renders peripheral certain protagonists who have been central to histories of modern art. The first of three studies focuses on the 1930 edition of Gertrude Stein’s Dix Portraits yet concentrates neither on the author of the book nor [End Page 675] on its most famous contributor, Pablo Picasso. In a neat reversal of Latimer’s earlier writing on Stein—in which she likens the many hundreds of portraits that Stein sat for to the insistence on repetition in her experimental writing—this chapter pivots on a group of artists who surrounded the writer. The group of four painters, known informally as the neoromantics, included Christian Bérard, Eugene Berman, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Kristians Tonny. Alongside Picasso, all contributed portraits to illustrate Stein’s book. Latimer draws from analyses of these portraits to describe a series of intimate associations between these gay men, associations for which Stein becomes a kind of scaffold.

Eccentrics, inverts, foreigners, and homosexuals: of the many figures introduced through Latimer’s books, difference is a subject that endures. This emphasis on locating queer ancestors is not a simple matter of retrieval but of engaging critically with processes of historical memory. For example, in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, Latimer’s 2003 collaboration with Whitney Chadwick, the failure of history to realize the promise of the modern woman is recognized as a simultaneous attempt to efface her from the scene altogether. In Eccentric Modernisms, Latimer introduces the idea of queerness alongside the eccentric. The two terms, she writes, are used interchangeably, but also help one another along. Long since synonymous with homosexuality, the word queer signals the erotic attachments that joined the loose association of eccentrics described in the book. Like the sign “lesbian” in Latimer’s previous work, the two terms are used as free-floating signifiers, connoting shifting affinities rather than essential characteristics.

Not only yoked to a specific identity, the word queer also implies a mode of critical engagement. Eccentric Modernisms is indebted to the work of queer theorists like Elizabeth Freeman who have countered the mechanisms of historical narrative. The reverence of the neoromantics in the interwar period to an earlier phase of modernism (precubist) thus challenges, for Latimer, the inevitability of abstraction’s predominance in histories of modern art. The apparent failure of this challenge is useful since it reveals the dominant values—including those favoring the heterosexual and masculine—that organize histories of modern art both within and outside of this period.

A second chapter continues this interest in deviation through which “an alternative future for modernism and its history” might emerge (47). Again, this occurs in proximity to Stein, this time through a reading of her collaboration with the composer Virgil Thomson on the libretto Four Saints in Three Acts. The opera that Mabel Luhan declared would “finish modern opera” was first performed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum museum in Hartford, Connecticut in 1934. It marked the opening of a retrospective dedicated to Picasso, his first in America. Foregrounding the opera, Latimer decentralizes the great artist and geographic centers such as New York or Paris at a time...


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pp. 675-677
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