Book Reviews: Latin American Art -- Dimensions of the Americas: Art and Social Change in Latin America and the United States by Shifra M. Goldman

Article excerpt

"Until a coherent, detailed, and socially framed history of modern Latin American, Brazilian and Caribbean art becomes available in English," Shifra Goldman states, "the very comprehension of a modern Latin American art history, except in fragments, was (and is) difficult" (pp. xxi, xv). Dimensions of the Americas is not, as the author takes pains to underline, that missing comprehensive history; rather, it is an excellent "introduction to the problems" (p. xvi). This wide-ranging collection of writings is an important contribution to that necessary construction of our still fragmentary picture of Latin American and Latino art history. As such, it stands alongside such catalogues as that produced for the Bronx Museum's important 1989 exhibition The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States 1920-1970 as a valuable addition to this slowly growing literature.

Dimensions of the Americas would be indispensable for its extended introduction alone, worth reading more than once. The introduction is at once a sketch for a periodization of twentieth century Latin American art; a major essay on the intellectual history of social art history, both in the United States and in Latin America; and a fascinating intellectual autobiography. It provides a valuable introduction to the writings of a dozen major Latin American social art historians and culture theorists, some of them unavailable in English, some only beginning to be published in translation.

Goldman writes "socially framed" art history, which she defines in her introduction:

If the social history of art has a specific field of study it is to discover what concrete transactions are hidden behind the mechanical image of "reflection," to know how "background" become "foreground"; to discover the network of real, complex relations between form and content rather than making vague analogies (p.20).

In practice this means that Goldman provides contextual information usually omitted by formal analysis, and that her readings of specific works and specific artists emphasize "how background becomes foreground." Her catalogue essay on Juan Sanchez, "Living on the Fifth Floor of the Four-Floor Country" (1989) included here in the final section on "Nationalism and Ethnic Identity," is a good example. It also means that Goldman has devoted major effort over the years to "mapping" and "naming" (p.23), to providing a great deal of information necessary to form an overview, as for instance, in her essay "Mujeres de California: Latin American Women Artists," one of five essays on "Women Speaking." The establishment of a periodization is another recurring concern. Goldman is hardly ever reductionist and never subordinates individuals to ideology. She does, however, link style and medium to historic conditions, usefully I think. She not only rejects a mechanistic reflexivity, she respects the (contingent) margin of autonomy of both the artist and the specific conditions of art production and patronage. Her writing is informed by nuanced judgment and a wealth of concrete observation.

The main body of the book is a collection of thirty-three essays, selected from the many Goldman wrote between 1974 and 1992. The bulk of those selected for publication in this volume were written during the late 1980s. They range from extended historical research pieces, to catalogue essays and exhibition reviews, to theoretical pieces. Two of them appear in print for the first time. Most of the pieces were written in response to specific occasions, and they bear the marks of their origins. Since Goldman has chosen to leave the previously published work in its original form, one can see how her ideas have changed, along with changing realities: "cultural imperialism" being abandoned for a more complex reading of domination by transnational capital. Most of the essays have held up remarkably well, although their theses may have lost some of their original bite, as they have gained currency in general discourse. …