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Pre-Modernism: Art-world Change and American Culture From the Civil War to the Armory Show.




Pre-Modernism is a well-researched and elegantly written book that tells a story of how modernist visual culture developed in the United States. The protagonists of this story differ from those who most often figure prominently in the history of American modernist art. J. M. Mancini, a lecturer in modern history at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, demonstrates that the historical and institutional roots of the modernist movement run deep--much deeper, in fact, than the top-soil typically toiled by scholars who focus only on modern artists and artworks. While the rehearsed narratives of modernism in America--as in Europe--habitually dwell on the ways in which enigmatic and pioneering artists revolted against what they perceived to be outdated standards of art-making and behavior, Mancini's book centers on those individuals responsible for the gradual and methodical evolution of institutions and technologies that set the stage for what turned out to be a not-so-revolutionary drama.

Mancini's main focus is the emergence of the American art world. Art worlds can be challenging to describe in detail, as they are made up of complex and daunting networks of institutional and social agents. Drawing on an array of archival materials, Mancini coherently portrays these networks of interaction, comprising a host of individual actors--museum officials, magazine editors, art educators, critics, dealers, gallerists, and publishers. Each of these late-nineteenth-century art-world players contributed to the establishment of a professional infrastructure and helped lay the aesthetic groundwork for the development of modernist art in post-Civil War America.

Pre-Modernism discusses these characters in a way that carefully attends to their unique identities and roles within burgeoning national and regional networks of art-world professionals. The first chapter rigorously discusses the role of periodicals, such as Joseph Moore Bowles's Modern Art and Sylvester Rosa Koehler's American Art Review, in establishing these networks. The second chapter offers some new insights into the evolving relationships between museums; professional organizations like the Society of American Artists; influential art dealers such as Frederick Keppel; and the expansion of art education throughout the United States. The section devoted to the art publisher and collector Louis Prang is particularly useful. Prang and other powerful art-world figures enthusiastically adopted new technologies of visual reproduction--especially chromolithography--as a means of publicizing paintings for commercial purposes; these techniques profoundly affected how avant-garde art was received by regional audiences who lacked access to the original works. Mancini also provides an important account of the opposition between, on the one hand, such market-oriented and populist approaches, and, on the other, the more exclusive culture espoused by critics like Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer and Clarence Chatham Cook, who contributed to the emergence of an art world made up of trained experts.

Mancini's sociological treatment of this basic art-world tension, and its significance for the future development of the avant-garde in the United States, is the most important feature of the book. Her study of art-world personages and institutions serves to fill a crucial gap in the art historical literature on the origins of twentieth-century modernism.
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Title Annotation:NOTED
Author:Adler, Dan
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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