by Anne Monahan. Yale University Press, February 2020. 264 p. ill. ISBN 9780300243307 (h/c), $50.00.

Reviewed July 2020
Jill Luedke, Art & Architecture Librarian, Temple University, jluedke@temple.edu

monahanMasters of Popular Painting: Primitives of Europe and America opened in 1938 at the Museum of Modern Art, presenting Horace Pippin (1888-1946) to a national audience just a year after his first exhibition in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Due to the artist’s lack of formal art training and limited academic education, the white, socialite art collectors of the time classified Pippin, an African American, as a naive, primitive painter or folk artist.

Anne Monahan’s Horace Pippin, American Modern re-presents Pippin as a reflective, intentional American modernist. American Modern suggests a “comprehensive response” to questions Monahan posed in her 2015 essay “Witness: History, Memory, and Authenticity in the Art of Horace Pippin.” Leading with a discussion of Self Portrait, 1941, Monahan points out that inconsistencies in the work are emblematic of how autobiography can be an unreliable source. She uses this example as a springboard for her argument against the frequently reductive interpretation of Pippin’s life and work.

Rejecting a traditional biographical study of the artist, Monahan presents her arguments through four lenses: “Autobiography,” “Labor,” “Process,” and “Gifts,” using each to demonstrate Pippin’s navigation of artistic freedom, iconography, method, and association. Chapter one, “Autobiography,” confronts scholarly misalignments created through previous reliance on biographical lenses. Chapter two, “Labor,” addresses Pippin’s portrayal of Black labor in 1940s America at a time when popular culture was romanticizing Reconstruction-era plantation life. Chapter three, “Process,” defends Pippin as an independent, astute student of art history, art practice, and art commerce. Chapter four, “Gifts,” gives the artist back his agency among his constituents and resituates Pippin as a sophisticate of his market. Monahan persuasively categorizes Pippin as an autodidact, countering previous scholarly assessments and nimbly addressing the implications of labels such as “primitive,” “outsider art,” and “self-taught.”

The reader will appreciate the complete list of known Pippin works, organized by support, and the complete list of known exhibitions. The book also includes extensive notes, a comprehensive index, and the complete text of two personal statements by Pippin: “The Story of Horace Pippin as told by Himself,” and “How I Paint.” The book is intelligently illustrated with over ninety color reproductions of paintings and photographs. Horace Pippin, American Modern is a heady read and essential for studies in graduate level African American art history or twentieth century art collection.