Writing with all the brilliance, authority, and pungent wit that have distinguished his art criticism for Time magazine and his greatly acclaimed study of modern art, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes now addresses his largest subject: the history of art in America.
The intense relationship between the American people and their surroundings has been the source of a rich artistic tradition. American Visions is a consistently revealing demonstration of the many ways in which artists have expressed this pervasive connection. In nine eloquent chapters, which span the whole range of events, movements, and personalities of more than three centuries, Robert Hughes shows us the myriad associations between the unique society that is America and the art it has produced:
"O My America, My New Founde Land" explores the churches, religious art, and artifacts of the Spanish invaders of the Southwest and the Puritans of New England; the austere esthetic of the Amish, the Quakers, and the Shakers; and the Anglophile culture of Virginia.
"The Republic of Virtue" sets forth the ideals of neo-classicism as interpreted in the paintings of Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and the Peale family, and in the public architecture of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch.
"The Wilderness and the West" discusses the work of landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and the Luminists, who viewed the natural world as "the fingerprint of God's creation," and of those who recorded America's westward expansionGeorge Caleb Bingham, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Remingtonand the accompanying shift in the perception of the Indian, from noble savage to outright demon.
"American Renaissance" describes the opulent era that followed the Civil War, a cultural flowering expressed in the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; the paintings of John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Childe Hassam; the Newport cottages of the super-rich; and the beaux-arts buildings of Stanford White and his partners.
"The Gritty Cities" looks at the post-Civil War years from another perspective: cast-iron cityscapes, the architecture of Louis Henri Sullivan, and the new realism of Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, the trompe-l'oeil painters, and the Ashcan School.
"Early Modernism" introduces the first American avant garde: the painters Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Georgia O'Keeffe, and the premier architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Streamlines and Breadlines" surveys the boom years, when skyscrapers and Art Deco were all the rage . . . and the bust years that followed, when painters such as Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Thomas Hart Benton, Diego Rivera, and Jacob Lawrence showed Americans "the way we live now."
"The Empire of Signs" examines the American hegemony after World War II, when the Abstract Expressionists (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, et al.) ruled the artistic roost, until they were dethroned by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, the Pop artists, and Andy Warhol, while individualists such as David Smith and Joseph Cornell marched to their own music.
"The Age of Anxiety" considers recent events: the return of figurative art and the appearance of minimal and conceptual art; the speculative mania of the 1980s, which led to scandalous auction practices and inflated reputations; and the trends and issues of art in the 90s.
Lavishly illustrated and packed with biographies, anecdotes, astute and stimulating critical commentary, and sharp social history, American Visions was originally published in association with a new eight-part PBS television series. Robert Hughes has called it "a love letter to America." This superb volume, which encompasses and enlarges upon the series, is an incomparably entertaining and insightful contemplation of its splendid subject.
Hughes, an Australian citizen who has lived in New York since 1970, when he became the art critic at Time magazine, describes his history of the objects and images created in America since the arrival of Europeans as a "love letter to America." Judging from the impassioned, often scathing tone of this unabashedly personal book, theirs has been a stormy affair. Like The Shock of the New, Hughes's 1981 look at modernism, this richly illustrated (330 illustrations, almost all in color) chronicle of American art from Puritan meetinghouses to Barbara Kruger's photo collages grew out of a public television series. But this is no bland, dumbed-down survey intended to flatter its subject or its audience. Hughes writes with an aesthete's disdain for political posturing, a traditionalist's belief in the importance of technical skills (painters are frequently taken to task for their shoddy draftsmanship) and a pragmatist's contempt for mystagogical bunk. Perhaps because he ultimately distrusts grand schemes, his overview isn't determined by a larger argument, such as defining what makes American art American. And while initially he uses art as a window onto American culture as a whole, that sense of perspective ebbs as Hughes approaches our contested times. With his rhetorical temperature rising, he seems almost burned out by the end, and his account of the contemporary scene is disappointingly brief. (Readers of his 1993 jeremiad, The Culture of Complaint, will recognize the tone and themes-and at least one recycled passage.) This slashingly witty, briskly paced, ferociously opinionated tour of the American visual landscape is a book that even the most un-likeminded readers will love to hate. 100,000 first printing; BOMC and QPB main selections; FYI: This book grew out of scripts for the eight-part TV series due to air from late May through early June. As Hughes points out in his introduction, each 3000-word script translated into a book chapter of more than 20,000 words.