Some of the Big Ideas Behind Modern Art ; Why Did They Create? Tracing the Thematic Threads of 20th-Century American Art

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At last. A user-friendly "big-picture" art history for lay people who want to understand what modern American art means and how it reflects the zeitgeist of the 20th century. Well, not all that it means, of course. At 208 picture-laden pages, Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century Art is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject. But it is as easy on the eyes as it is revealing of its subject. Authors John Carlin and Jonathan Fineberg paint a portrait of the last century in broad strokes, choosing three highly significant, if not necessarily definitive, themes: "American Pastoral" (how American artists have represented both landscape and cityscape); "Songs of Myself" (how they represented themselves); and "The Media Is the Message" (how they represented the media- dominated culture and the new reality of technology).

Of necessity Carlin and Fineberg have focused on the work of only a handful of artists. And though readers may object, "What about so- and-so..." it is clear that the book is intended to raise eyebrows and to encourage future investigation.

In 1947 American poet Charles Olson wrote in "Call me Ishmael": "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.... I spell it large because it comes large here...."

Many art historians have commented, likewise, on the "big country" landscapes of 19th-century painters who celebrated the enormous wilderness of North America, from sea to shining sea, and who seemed to express the American spirit of exploration as well as the refined skills of civilization.

Just inside the cover of "Imagining America," the large painting by Thomas Cole known as "The Oxbow" (approximately 4 ft. by 6 ft.) is juxtaposed with a photo of Robert Smithson's 1970 giant earth work, "The Spiral Getty."

What Olson described as fundamental to the American experience, Cole painted in no uncertain terms. Big space, the wilderness, was changing fast and not all to the good, Cole seems to warn us.

Smithson's "Spiral Getty," created more than 100 years later, echoes Cole's sense of encroaching civilization, as well as the idea of the artist as product of both nature and culture. …