An essay on the reasons why it is difficult to write about modern art outside the traditional trajectories (Europe, North America, the North Atlantic).

One option for writing about modernisms outside western Europe and North America is expanding the crucial stories of modernism by adding unfamiliar names and practices that can count as avant-garde. This is the Czech artist Jan Zrzavy's wonderful, outlandish "Cleopatra," a good example work that could claim admission to the indispensable stories of European and world modernisms. But there are reasons not to go searching for "new" avant-garde moments.

Another option for writing about modernisms outside western Europe and North America is to define "new" work per negationem, by what it is not. Jakopic might be deifnably different from contemporaneous artists in Germany and Austria: but is that a viable way to proceed?

North American Art History and Its Alternatives

Chapter 7: Writing About Modernist Painting Outside Europe and North America

Modernist painting, broadly construed, follows a trajectory from David, Manet, and Cézanne to Picasso, expressionism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, and this trajectory is widely cited by art historians in various countries. The uncertain path of painting after World War II forms much of contemporary critical writing, but prior to minimalism and conceptualism the principal works, places, and concepts continue to comprise a lingua franca in which deeper discussions of modernism take place.

This general story of modernism, or modernisms, is itself contentious, and it is probably best understood as an uneasy confluence of several master narratives. But for my purposes here, those differences are internal to a larger issue. The enormous amount of art literature produced around the world can give the impression either that modernist painting outside this main trajectory is well studied, or at least that there is a growing literature on individual modernisms that is, in theory, available to any interested reader. Yet this assumption obscures a profound problem for an art historians interested in modernist and late-twentieth century practices in painting beyond Western Europe and North America. 

When modernist painting made outside the main trajectory is introduced into contexts wherein the cardinal moments of modernism are taken for granted, the unfamiliar work can appear unequal for at least four reasons.

First, it can seem limited when it is directed to a particular market that is outside the mainstreams of modernist interest, as, for example, with harbor-front and marine painting done in modernist styles.

Second, modernist painting outside the trajectory can appear uninteresting when the pressing problems of modernism appear to be played out elsewhere, for example in the case of the Panamanian primitive and naïve artists who stand at the beginning of Panamanian modernism: their naïveté cannot appear as exemplary as, say, Rousseau’s. 

Third, painting outside the trajectory can seem misinformed when it is the result of limited communication between a major artistic center and a local one. 

Judgments like those prevent histories of modernist painting from being more inclusive, unless they are also histories of individual nations’ painting—in which case they are not likely to be widely read in North America, Western Europe, or in university departments elsewhere that are committed to the main trajectory.

This chapter looks at seven possible solutions to this problem.


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