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Members' Research Report Archive

Survey and Anthology

Iain Boyd Whyte, University of Edinburgh
Samuel H. Kress Professor, 2015 – 2016

whyte-2015-2016

Gunter Henn, architect, Die Gläserne Manufaktur (The Transparent Factory), Volkswagen assembly plant, Dresden, 2002. Author photograph

The unrivaled library and research support offered by CASVA and the National Gallery of Art has given me the rare opportunity to work on two major projects simultaneously.

The first is a monograph surveying German architecture from unification in 1871 to reunification in 1990. There is a fine CASVA precedent, as Rudolf Wittkower most likely worked on the third revised edition of his great survey Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600 – 1750 when he was Kress Professor in 1969 – 1970. Since Wittkower’s day, however, the field has changed beyond recognition, particularly in the burgeoning ease of access to vast amounts of data. In the case of German architecture, for example, obscure journals like Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung or Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst, which were formerly accessible only in specialist libraries, are now available online in their entirety.

If it were focused primarily on the architectural avant-garde, the survey would be a straightforward task. This account, first mapped out by Nikolaus Pevsner back in the 1930s, is well established. In spite of its age, the simple tale of a functionalist imperative that ran from the Deutscher Werkbund to the Dessau Bauhaus and on to postwar modernism is still taught in virtually every school of architecture. It is no longer supportable, however, and the frame of my project extends beyond the acclaimed heroes of the modern movement — Peter Behrens (1868 – 1940), Bruno Taut (1880 – 1938), Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 – 1969) — to embrace the unheralded and forgotten architects of the mainstream. This is no simple task. The confluence of an information avalanche with the collapse of long-established readings or interpretations makes great demands on selection and narrative construction. Big data demands strong narratives: as Wittkower said in the foreword to the second edition of Art and Architecture in Italy: “. . . the text is meant to stand on its own and be perused by those who want to read a coherent narrative rather than use a textbook.”

The second major project is the preparation of an anthology of texts on the pan-European reception of US art over the period 1945 – 1990, to be published under the editorial management of the journal Art in Translation. Postwar art in the United States — abstract expressionism, Pop, minimalism, earth art, and other forms —  triggered wildly differing responses across Europe. There was no single European discourse, as reactions were politically and socially mediated in various national and cultural contexts. To frame the project, a small expert group met in Washington in October 2015, hosted by CASVA. In two days of discussion, the intellectual contours and structure of the anthology were established, along with a longer list of scholars who could advise on key texts suitable for translation and publication. By drawing on the expertise of some fifty advisors, well over two hundred texts have been identified from an array of genres, ranging from key introductory articles and exhibition reviews — which presented US art for the first time to both the specialist and general reader — to the more substantial articles and theoretical writings that first appeared in the 1960s. When translated and published, these texts will reveal the extraordinary diversity of the European reaction. To give one very obvious example, consider the reception of abstract expressionism: understood and initially domesticated in France in terms of its similarity to Art informel (for instance, in Michel Tapié, “Pollock avec nous,” 1952), it was dismissed in Belgrade in 1956 as “American tutti frutti.” Although subsequently embraced by critics and politicians interested in promoting a new image of a Yugoslavia that was open to the West, it was damned in 1963 by no less a figure than Marshal Tito, who dismissed all abstract art as worthless. Few art history books, one imagines, can point to Josip Broz Tito in their indexes.

The preeminence achieved by US art in postwar Europe is a topic already addressed in the individual contexts of France, West Germany, and the UK. No study yet exists, however, that surveys the reception of art made in the USA across all the European nations, including the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Thanks to its wide networks of advisors and translators, the anthology will help fill this lacuna. When published it will assuredly stimulate a major reevaluation of the impact of postwar US art in Europe.

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