Paul Wood, Francis Frascina, Jonathan Harris, and Charles Harrison. Modernism in Dispute: Art Since the Forties. New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the Open University, 1993. 267 pp.; 48 color ills. 180 b/w. $50.00; $25.00 paper
Judy Siegel, ed. Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975-1990. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992. 360 pp. $22.00 paper
In one of these books about contemporary art, the theoretical tail threatens to wag the empirical dog. In the other, the "dog" is lovingly examined in furry detail.
The theoretically oriented Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties begins with a backward glance at the thirties in the United States, then turns to the postwar period, mainly in this country. Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975-1990 documents fifteen years of spoken events, most of which took place in New York. Despite differences in intent and scope, the books' contents overlap considerably, particularly with regard to late modernism and the development of postmodern practices. Both also privilege the word by highlighting the dialectical relationship of verbal and visual in modern and contemporary art.
Modernism in Dispute is the last of four volumes that together constitute the readings for a course titled "Modern Art: Practices and Debates" at England's Open University. The books are nevertheless intended to be "self-sufficient and accessible to the general reader" (p. 1). Of the nine authors, all British, seven are academic art historians (most at the Open University), while one lectures in educational technology at the Open University, and the last is an artist and writer in London. Each of the books comprises three or four chapters, which are organized around large themes rather than strictly chronological divisions.
Although each book is intended to be self-contained, the nature and success of Modernism in Dispute cannot be properly evaluated without reference to the series because the first three books provide definitions and in part determine the agenda and scope of the fourth. The first volume, Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, opens with an introductory chapter on the nature of modern art. This is followed by a chapter treating the inception of modern artistic practice, exemplified especially by Courbet and Manet, and then by one on Impressionism. The final chapter considers the links between gender and representation.
In Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, the second volume, three chapters present issues related to primitivism, a semiotic analysis of Cubism, and an examination of abstraction, including the art of Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky, among others. The third volume, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars, divides this material into four chapters concerning art in France after World War I, Constructivism and related tendencies, Surrealism, and representational art, particularly as it developed in the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany. Finally, Modernism in Dispute wraps up the story in three chapters.
Its four authors, all art historians--Jonathan Harris at Leeds Metropolitan University, the others at the Open University--previously have published, singly or together in various permutations, several anthologies of readings on modern art.(1) The author as well of English Art and Modernism 1900-1939 (1981; reissued in a second-edition paperback by Yale University Press, 1994), Charles Harrison has also published Essays on Art and Language (Blackwell, 1991). Paul Wood is co-author of Politics of Art Education (Studio Trust, 1979).
In part, the strengths and weaknesses of Modernism in Dispute are those of the series as a whole. Because of the number of authors involved, quality varies not only from book to book but from chapter to chapter. However, the series laudably attempts to remedy common deficiencies in existing histories of the period. …