The Modern Moves West

The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century

Richard Cándida Smith
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Modern Moves West
    Book Description:

    In 1921 Sam Rodia, an Italian laborer and tile setter, started work on an elaborate assemblage in the backyard of his home in Watts, California. The result was an iconic structure now known as the Watts Towers. Rodia created a work that was original, even though the resources available to support his project were virtually nonexistent. Each of his limitations-whether of materials, real estate, finances, or his own education-passed through his creative imagination to become a positive element in his work. InThe Modern Moves West, accomplished cultural historian Richard Cándida Smith contends that the Watts Towers provided a model to succeeding California artists that was no longer defined through a subordinate relationship to the artistic capitals of New York and Paris.

    Tracing the development of abstract painting, assemblage art, and efforts to build new arts institutions, Cándida Smith lays bare the tensions between the democratic and professional sides of modern and contemporary art as California developed a distinct regional cultural life. Men and women from groups long alienated-if not forcibly excluded-from the worlds of "high culture" made their way in, staking out their participation with images and objects that responded to particular circumstances as well as dilemmas of contemporary life, in the process changing the public for whom art was made. Beginning with the emergence of modern art in nineteenth-century France and its influence on young Westerners and continuing through to today's burgeoning border art movement along the U.S.-Mexican frontier,The Modern Moves Westdramatically illustrates the paths that California artists took toward a more diverse and inclusive culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0794-1
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Dilemmas of Professional Culture
    (pp. 1-15)

    In a passionate, often angry article published in 1963 inArtforum, a new journal dedicated to critical discussion of West Coast art, painter Fred Martin expressed his outrage at the conception of art history embodied in recent exhibition programs at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the nation’s oldest modern art museum west of Manhattan.¹ He viewed the priorities of the museum’s new director, George Culler, as fundamentally hostile to the concerns motivating most contemporary work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Juxtaposing two recent shows at the museum, “Art of the Bay Area” and “Art of Brazil,” Martin questioned...

  5. Chapter One The Case for Modern Art as a Distinct Form of Knowledge
    (pp. 16-30)

    The foundations for a newly conceived institution of art developed in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, although observers in other countries quickly absorbed and reinterpreted new ideas and new practices that took root first in Paris. After the innovations of painter Gustave Courbet and poet Charles Baudelaire, overlapping and disparate modern movements increasingly focused on how language, visual images, sound constructions could communicate anything at all—a development that released art from the responsibility of presenting cohesive social myths and shifted creative focus to a more elusive effort of analyzing the psychological and social factors shaping...

  6. Chapter Two Modern Art in a Provincial Nation
    (pp. 31-58)

    The linkage of painting with modern conceptions of knowledge found a particularly positive reception in the United States after the Civil War. Taine’sPhilosophy of Art, published in English in New York City shortly after the original French volume appeared, went through several editions, unusual, if not extraordinary, for a book of its nature. For decades following the Civil War, U.S. collectors, flush with fortunes made through industrialization and the developing mass consumer market, were particularly taken with modern French painting. They assembled the most impressive collections outside France, and U.S. museums remain the homes of many of the most...

  7. Chapter Three Modern Art and California’s Progressive Legacies
    (pp. 59-74)

    For the first sixty years of the twentieth century, California’s political culture committed the state’s resources to building a public education system second to none, culminating in state-funded college and university programs intended to make quality liberal arts and professional instruction accessible to the state’s residents. California raced far ahead of the rest of the nation in college enrollments. By 1930, 24 percent of young adults in California attended a university or college, more than twice the national rate. College attendance continued to climb faster in the state than anywhere else in the world, and in 1960, the year California’s...

  8. Chapter Four From an Era of Grand Ambitions
    (pp. 75-97)

    As a prominent figure in California’s countercultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s, Jay DeFeo has often been associated with, at times celebrated for, a supposed Dionysian irrationality that in fact had little to do with the deeply intellectualized project that guided the development of her painting, works on paper, and photography. She shared a widespread faith of her generation of artists that the validity of painting as a discipline lay in its ability to reveal truths she thought were independent of any immediate social context. Her goal was to bring to the surface underlying realities structuring how sensations turned...

  9. Chapter Five Becoming Postmodern
    (pp. 98-129)

    On a theoretical level, the postmodern turn after 1960 involved intensive critiques of systems of representation, subjectivity, and the formation of identity. These discussions, largely based in philosophy and the humanities disciplines, came from a broad range of theoretical and methodological perspectives. At no point has there been a unified “postmodern” vision, much less theory.¹ A common, though not universal, aspect of the philosophical turn was a critical reexamination of the category of the subject, that is, of a consciousness theorized as coming into being through efforts to turn the chaos of sensation into meaningful ideas. Questioning subjectivity in particular...

  10. Chapter Six California Assemblage: Art as Counterhistory
    (pp. 130-153)

    Ironically, prior to the 1960s, the relative poverty of arts institutions and the paucity of support available allowed for a more transparently democratic arts world, for all suffered to varying degrees from the isolation and lack of resources. Underdevelopment fostered ad hoc community-based improvisations such as the Six Gallery for the sole purpose of assertingPresence—an assertion paralleling Rodia’s Watts Towers. The basic rule had to be, if you have something to say, you just have to say it. That somebody found your work moving was the greatest reward, the validation that choices you had made for your life...

  11. Chapter Seven Learning from the Watts Towers
    (pp. 154-181)

    While well aware of the precedents that Picasso, Schwitters, Picabia, and others in the pre–World War II European modern arts movements had provided for the use of found objects, artists in California cherished their own indigenous source for assemblage art—Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers.¹ As she was growing up, Betye Saar often visited her grandmother, whose home was only a few blocks from Rodia’s. Saar spent much of her childhood playing around the Watts Towers while Rodia was still at work building them. She recalled the towers as a “fairy tale palace.” Even as a child, she was fascinated...

  12. Chapter Eight Contemporary Art Along the U.S.-Mexican Border
    (pp. 182-207)

    The problem of how to expand and deepen the relationship of contemporary artists to a broader public, the problem that Purifoy tried to address through his twelve years on the California Arts Council, continues as an unsolved puzzle sparking a variety of improvised responses. Artist-in-community programs have grown since his retirement, and several foundations have collaborated in an initiative to expand support, financial and organizational, for arts organizations developing alternative ways of working with the public.¹ Experiments can be particularly exciting in communities experiencing the emergence of a locally based art community. As a vibrant art scene developed in Tijuana...

  13. Conclusion: Improvising from the Margins
    (pp. 208-214)

    In the first decades of the twentieth century, the San Francisco Bay Area had only a handful of places regularly showing modern art. At the beginning of 2009, publics with an interest in art had more than 250 possible venues, offering highly diverse programs with distinctive approaches to contemporary art practices.¹ Three new museums were in the planning stage, while both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Berkeley Art Museum were launching capital campaigns to expand gallery space for special exhibits and more regular display of sizable and growing permanent collections. Similar growth occurred somewhat earlier in...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 215-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-250)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 251-252)