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

THE MODERN MOVES WEST: CALIFORNIA ARTISTS AND DEMOCRATIC CULTURE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

By Richard Candida Smith

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, 264 pp., $39.95 cloth)

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RICHARD CANDIDA SMITH'S most recent book is another tour de force example of the skillful employment of art in the service of ideas. Here the highly respected intellectual historian further develops ideas introduced in earlier works: Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California (1995), a strikingly original look at mid-twentieth-century California avant-garde art that diverged from the typical practice of determining significance by progression along established formalist lines, and the brilliant Mallarme's Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience (1999), in which the author finds significance in California's innovative bohemian subcultures and working-class society.

The Modern Moves West is in some ways even more ambitious than the earlier two books, but they really should be viewed as a series--a trilogy--sharing an intellectual/historical point of view that seeks its evidence in art and specifically that of California. The approach is largely chronological, moving from ninteenth-century France to California, the early chapters laying the intellectual and philosophical groundwork. For this reader, the guiding historical perspective came together on page forty-five with the introduction of Simon Rodia and his splendid Watts Towers in South Central Los Angeles. Moving from the abstract to the specific, the author could not have done better than to start with Rodia, the working-class master who stands legitimately shoulder-to-shoulder with the leading modernist elites--and not only in California. Rodia's direct influence is emphasized by a long discussion of Noah Purifoy, first director of the Watts Towers Art Center, whose questioning of the efficacy of working as an individual artist to benefit his community, and his use of assemblage as a democratic means of expression, fits well with the author's interests.

Rather than focus on the most prominent California artists, Candida Smith prefers to concentrate on a few figures who best exemplify how artists create a place for themselves in a more broadly defined modernity. The analysis of Jay DeFeo's iconic The Rose (1958-66), with its obsessive layering of monochromatic pigment to approximate sculptural form, convincingly places the work within the realm of ideas as well as the senses.

In this extraordinary book, strikingly original and rich in synthetic thinking, Candida Smith presents an alternative way to look at and think about art, and its relationship to the larger social and cultural context. He patiently explains how forces came together to produce a creative culture in California that, on its own regional terms, played a significant role in expanding how we think about modernism as a historical concept. Along the way, he presents a nonstandard but recognizable historical overview that significantly expands our understanding of how art fits in and contributes to society. For those seriously interested in art, and in California history, The Modern Moves West is indispensable reading.

REVIEWED BY PAUL J. KARLSTROM, FORMER WEST COAST REGIONAL DIRECTOR, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION; EDITOR OF ON THE EDGE OF AMERICA: CALIFORNIA MODERNIST ART, 1900-1950; AND AUTHOR OF THE FORTHCOMING PETER SELZ: SKETCHES OF A LIFE IN ART
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Author:Karlstrom, Paul J.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
Words:523
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