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Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O'Keeffe

By Landau, Ellen G. | The Art Bulletin, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O'Keeffe


Landau, Ellen G., The Art Bulletin


ANNE MIDDLETON WAGNER Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O'Keeffe

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 346 pp.; 30 color ills., 101 b/w. $35.00

The latest entry into what might be termed the "Significant Others" discourse is Anne Middleton Wagner's Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O'Keeffe. A professor of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley, Wagner began her career as a specialist in 19thcentury sculpture (her previous book was Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: Sculptor of the Second Empire, New Haven, 1986). However, during the past decade she has turned her attention to 20th-century concerns, writing and lecturing on Minimalist art, the contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel, and the three women who form the focus of her new publication. Large portions of the chapters on Hesse and Krasner in Three Artists have appeared previously in abbreviated or slightly different form.1

Toward the end of her text, Wagner explains that her intent was "to instance the experience, as artists, of three women, and likewise to describe the experience, as women, of three artists," although she acknowledges that "this second topic has gotten somewhat shorter shrift" (p. 287). Both her subtitle and concluding chapter, "Making a Difference to Modernism: An Epilogue," foreground Wagner's determination to link her subjects by situating them specifically in reference to the modernist movement; it is not her project merely to stipulate that they deserve prominence in the wider context of modern art. Nor has she chosen as her main brief to study the pernicious ramifications for these women of becoming involved in creative relationships, although she devotes much attention to this topic.

Three Artists, in fact, shares many characteristics with the Kunstlerpaare/Kunstlerfreunde catalogues generated by the Kunstmuseum Bern over the past decade (none unfortunately available in English) ,2 as well as the diverse essays on artistic and literary pairings published by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership (London, 1993), to which Wagner contributed a version of the current Krasner essay. It also bears comparison with another recent publication, Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positionings (London, 1994). Choosing a dissimilar cast of characters (Europeans or American expatriates working early in the century), in it Bridget Elliott and Jo-Ann Wallace specify a similar motive to Wagner's and introduce their own set of feminist case studies with the powerful question, "Whose Modernism?" Adopting a theoretical framework from Pierre Bourdieu and Toril Moi, they explain their title:

Our use of the portmanteau word "(im) positionings" is meant not only to invoke the reevaluation of writers like Natalie Barney or artists like Nina Hamnett ("imposing" them on an academy which has refused to recognize the degree of their contributions to "modernism"), but also to suggest our commitment to rethinking modernism as a discursive and historical field.3

Elliott and Wallace rehearse for the reader the construction of modernism as a series of autonomous formal interrogations and analyze the role of critics such as Roger Fry, Clive Bell, and Clement Greenberg in articulating modernism's very distinctive premises. They include, as well, valuable discussion of Marxist and feminist reformulations and reconfigurations of the foundational notions associated with modernism, most notably "avant-garde," "purity," "self-reflexivity" and "genius"-all implied masculine traits. Elliott and Wallace's revisionist goal-"to expose the diversity within modernism" by asking and trying to answer such questions as "is it gender, class and race-specific? did formal experimentation mean the same thing to men and women artists?"4-seemingly correlates with a key aspect of Wagner's project, a purposeful recontextualization of the modernist movement as more pluralist than typically conceived.

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