by Edward J. Sullivan. March 2018. 336 p. 140 ill. ISBN 9781786271556 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed July 2018
While contemporary scholarship has embraced a global context, much of art history operates within the assumption of a clearly defined center and periphery. In Making the Americas Modern, Edward J. Sullivan employs a hemispheric lens to provide a new perspective on modern art in the Americas.
In the prologue, Sullivan explains his comparative approach in creating a collection of “fragmentary histories.” The text skips, jumps, and bounces from artist to artist in different locations and years. We are warned, “Certain readers might find some of my juxtapositions bizarre [...] And they may indeed be, as they often do not conform to conventional or widely accepted hierarchies of artistic value…” Throughout the text, Sullivan mixes traditionally considered high and low art as well as familiar and unfamiliar artists effectively.
The book consists of eight chapters divided by subject or style and includes symbolism, urban and rural landscapes, blackness, public art, labor and anxiety, abstraction, and surrealism. The time constraints of 1910 to 1960 correspond with exhibitions (the Armory Show and the first Bienal de São Paulo) as well as political upheavals (the Mexican Revolution and the Cuban Revolution).
Two chapters are devoted to abstraction, and Sullivan explains his rationale in highlighting artists not usually featured in the canon, stating that art history needs new perspectives and fresh assessments. In chapter six, he begins with examples from the African-American artist Alma Thomas and the Bolivian and New York painter María Luisa Pacheco. In chapter seven, readers get the first in-depth look at a specific artist and their circle with Joaquin Torres-Garcia and those in the Torres-Garcia workshop.
Chapter three, “Visualizing Blackness in the Americas,” demonstrates conversance with intersectional theory by interrogating art creators and consumers in addition to the depicted subjects. One example is the painting Desnudo by Celeste Woss y Gil (1941). Sullivan deftly explains the context of its creation and analyzes its depiction of blackness by including the heritage of the artist, why it is considered modern, and who was the intended consumer for the image.
Overall, Sullivan has written an engaging text that will introduce most readers to a few new artists and offers a chance to see familiar artists in a new context.
The book is well illustrated throughout, is a readable size, and is durably constructed. It is meant for an academic audience and would pair well with Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars, by Michele Greet. The Latin American artists in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s are mentioned several times, and Greet’s book would provide broader context for how their work in Europe informed their work in the Americas.