Response: Romancing the Modern: Nemerov, Wyeth, and the Limits of American Art History

Article excerpt

Though hardly announcing itself as such, Alexander Nemerov's "The Boy in Bed: The Scene of Reading in N. C. Wyeth's Wreck of the 'Covenant'" might stand as a kind of description of the state of the field of the history of art in the United States before 1945. I realize that there is something arcane about subdividing the field in this way, but it is unavoidably implied in Nemerov's choice of subject, and the thrust of his argument is deeply dependent on our believing in a character of American painting that is peculiar to a period markedly segregated from that which produced Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. He is working from the premise that a strain of classic Romanticism survives in American art into the early twentieth century and that we come to understand how to interpret such work by acknowledging the ways in which it mobilizes the devices, tropes, and ideologies of the Romantic.

Nemerov's assertion is hardly new, and I doubt he would claim it as such. The argument has served for many years to keep a hold on the place of the modern in American painting in this moment, and not always misguidedly. In fact, much of the history of American painting prior to 1945 has been dependent on a couching of the nascent modern in the Romantic ideology, whether the latter be called nationalism, or Americanism, or, in Nemerov's case, the construction of the individual identity as sign of the psyche's vicissitudes. In this case, the Romantic serves as a foil to the disconcerting uncertainties of the modern and its forms of representation and aesthetic. Of course, it is true that at times the Romantic is merely that, and the modern less present, despite the pregnancy of a date like 1900 or so. Or, at times, the terms are simply of little use. In the end, art historical clinging to the supposed ideologies of one kind of romanticism or another to explain a moment beyond its historical effulgence has produced accounts of the history of American art that have their virtues but seem very much a part of an earlier and less critical project, an undertaking that substitutes the cover of Romanticism for the complexities of another moment in history.

The problem might also be put like this: How do metaphor and history entwine? Is the production of one indebted to the conditions of another? Or does the former transcend the limitations of the latter? Concomitantly, is imagination a situational cognitive operation or does its entanglement with the unconscious aid in the disregard for the moment better associated with the latter's timelessness or affinity for the eternal?

These are questions begged by Nemerov's article. He takes as his intention to uncover the look of the imagination in American painting in about 1900. Through an examination of the intersection of literature and the visual he means to ask of reading what it requires of its illustration, and of illustration what it holds immanent of reading. Nemerov intends to diminish the estrangement of word and image by exposing metaphor's agency as a unifier of literature and painting. Ultimately, in his own words, Nemerov wants to show "what an image does that it does not know it is doing," an operation "more broadly relevant to the study of American art"-and a task determined to produce a history specific to its moment of reference and production of materials and materiality.

Nemerov's terms, and perhaps more particularly, their phrasing, are of the utmost importance to his analysis, his account of history. It is not simply that metaphor, history, imagination, and art embed signs of specificity that make for the historical, but that our ability to interpret by dint of these terms' linguistic manipulation is history itself, is the definition of a moment, an episode, an action or event in historical time. In turn, such an assumption begs pressuring, teasing out of inconsistencies and contradictions, consistencies and continuities that invite critical questioning and disagreement, argument. …