New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996. 328 pp.; 315 color ills.; 21 b/w. $75.00; $42.95 paper
By 1964, when historian H. Stuart Hughes wrote an essay rifled "Is Contemporary History Real History?. . . . contemporary" history had become a specialization. Hughes reminisced, "When I was a student, I had the strong impression that the writing and teaching of contemporary history were not quite respectable."(1) Today it remains a shadowy, if no longer suspect enterprise to fix contemporary experience as historical fact. A discipline without a period, contemporary art history could be defined as the attempt to fill the gap between George Heard Hamilton and Artforum.
Because it is such a relative term, at some point historians will have to stop calling the art of 1945 contemporary. Contemporary to what or to whom? To the present moment? The majority of people alive today were born after 1945. Yet we persist with the term contemporary, reluctant to concede this art to modernism, or part of our own lives to the past. Or perhaps as academics we have accepted the temporal collapse of postmodernism so completely that time's passage no longer even matters, that we can see Expressionism and Neoexpressionism as the same thing.
Certainly, postwar art history is contemporary in the most basic sense: it speaks of its own moment of creation as well as that of its subject. In the past year, major publications in three different genres have appeared that, from their diverse vantage points, attempt to survey new ground in contemporary art history. Mark Rosenthal, in Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline, a museum catalogue, writes about things; Jonathan Fineberg, in Art since 1940: Strategies of Being, a textbook designed for undergraduate use, writes about people; Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, an anthology, write about texts.
These books are directed toward a general as well as an academic audience. This is the territory of contemporary art - arguments of elite and mass culture aside, it should speak to all of us. According to many contemporary thinkers, the audience should talk back and is instructed not to be passive in its response. Fineberg ends his introduction with a hope: "The structural strategies in a work of art (motivated by what I wish to call 'strategies of being') can put the viewer in a certain frame of mind that he or she can then bring to bear, as a posture for questioning, on real events" (p. 19). The author is simultaneously offering an explanation, directed at other art professionals, of how artworks and exhorting the public to interact with art in a particular way. Similarly, Kristine Stiles ends her general introduction by citing the art collective Group Material's invitation "to question the entire culture we have taken for granted" (p. 9).
This potentially large and "questioning" (critical) audience is one explanation for the tenuous disciplinary status of contemporary art history and its historians. Our knowledge is not privileged. Beneath the breast of every spectator beats the heart of an expert, someone who was there, remembers differently, knows better. The conviction that having lived through the "period" is the primary requirement for writing on contemporary art becomes evident in a comparison of the work by art historians mining their fields of the 18th and 19th centuries with their (usually subsequent) work on postwar art. Some of the most prominent figures in recent art history, having written significant books on early modern art, have turned their attention to contemporary art. To generalize, they share a tendency to write on postwar art in a historical mode, but not necessarily with the same degree of extensive documentation evident in their other work. On the other hand, scholars who publish primarily in contemporary art have command of the facts but are more inclined toward making direct contact with living witnesses and lack the historicizing habit.
Conscious of potential critics among their readers, Rosenthal, Fineberg, and Stiles and Selz all post the appropriate disclaimers that they are writing not the history but a history (or perhaps are not writing history at all), or are writing far too soon to describe definitively the shape of the last fifty years. They should be reminded that it is possible to write a definitive as opposed to the definitive history; the history is no less definite and authoritative, no less potentially influential for being one of many. Every history shapes future histories.
Any history forces its author to invent. Still, contemporary history is the least standardized, the most apparently handwritten. Because it is so fresh, there are fewer models and established precedents to work from - it is as if the three books under review were each only the second or third draft of something completely new. Yet there is a historiography of contemporary art and already a pattern of revision. Sam Hunter, writing the first history of "Art since 1945" in the United States, omitted Ad Reinhardt.(2) Reviewers were uncertain of Hunter's criteria: Were his decisions statements of historical importance or purely critical judgments?(3) Reinhardt himself satirically defended "Chief Curator Sam Hunter," cleverly rendering Hunter's judgment as human fallibility rather than critical freedom: "we should remember that we're none of us perfect, and people do the best they can."(4) In 1959, in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism's advent and the midst of its public success, Reinhardt's clean, opaque paintings did not appear to be central; ensuing years saw the return of the repressed Reinhardt. (In 1996, the three new histories under review do not exclude him, but his strict, impersonal blankness seems to be regarded once more as beside the point.)
There is anxiety here not only for authors attempting to choose responsibly, but for artists as well. Historicization, even when accomplished with great sensitivity, can signal (and even cause) the end of a moment's or an art's status as present. Interviewed on the occasion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1965 "New York School" retrospective, Barnett Newman offered a typically ambivalent response to his relatively recent recognition. On the one hand, Newman was pleased because he saw the paintings exhibited as more than great aesthetic efforts, as "historical events." On the other hand, he was disappointed that the exhibition failed to cover Abstract Expressionism after 1959, because of the lost opportunity to tell the whole story, "which by the way is still continuing." Newman grumbled, "It seems that the attitude towards the show by those who organized it is as if we were all dead."(5) Ironically, it was not only those artists excluded from contemporary art histories, such as Reinhardt, who had cause to complain but also those, such as Newman, who had been included. When history coincides with ongoing careers and lives, there is bound to be disagreement.
How have contemporary historians mediated the contemporary and the historical in the past? In his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" T. S. Eliot wrote, "The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered."(6) Following Eliot, on whom he modeled much of his criticism, Clement Greenberg was concerned both to assess art formally and to establish a definite historical mode. According to Greenberg, "Modern art, dating from Manet, is still too young to let us rest on our judgments regarding it. . . ."(7) He constantly readjusted his history of modernist art in order to account for new art, as in his reevaluation of the late work of Monet in the search for a precedent for Color Field painting.(8) Many voices in the 1960s rhymed those of Eliot and Greenberg. George Kubler, author of the influential The Shape of Time (1962), viewed history as "unfinished business," again drawing on Eliot.(9) Michael Fried, producing a more flexible version of Greenbergian history, frequently spoke of historical "fecundity" as the measure of an artist.(10) Hence the common observation that modernist history is written backward.(11)
This continual refiguring of the historical narrative relieves the modernist art critic of the pressure to judge correctly, to get it right the first time. As Thomas Hess once said of his own earlier misjudgment of Franz Kline, "But, to borrow a mode from Clement Greenberg, Mea Culpa!"(12) Today, of course, historians and critics often excuse themselves with claims for multiplicity or postmodernist contingency, saying, "It's not that we will rewrite it in the future, but simply that we will write something else." Yet scholars persist in the real desire to have their own version of history stand - all of the authors here take the "long view" (Fineberg, 13), imagining their volumes as relevant to future discussions.
So while Fineberg, Stiles and Selz, and Rosenthal refer to the advent of a postmodern historical mode (often, peculiarly, as if it had already come and gone), they do not so much enter into postmodernism as they exit from modernism. Seen from a distance, modernist art history combines continuity and discontinuity, moving smoothly forward by means of abrupt breakthroughs. Jonathan Fineberg's response is to reject the entire "tradition of the new," dealing deliberately with the life of individuals rather than the life of art. Departing more directly from modernism, Stiles and Selz dispense with continuity, the connective tissue of history, leaving only innovation. Still another tactic is to discount newness, leaving only continuity, or transition, which dominates Rosenthal's catalogue. While stressing innovation creates simple difference, a history of transitions relies on similarity, a...