Some of the big ideas behind modern art

Why did they create? Tracing the thematic threads of 20th-century American art.

At last. A user-friendly "big-picture" art history for lay people who want to understand what modern American art means and how it reflects the zeitgeist of the 20th century. Well, not all that it means, of course. At 208 picture-laden pages, Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century Art is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject. But it is as easy on the eyes as it is revealing of its subject. Authors John Carlin and Jonathan Fineberg paint a portrait of the last century in broad strokes, choosing three highly significant, if not necessarily definitive, themes: "American Pastoral" (how American artists have represented both landscape and cityscape); "Songs of Myself" (how they represented themselves); and "The Media Is the Message" (how they represented the media-dominated culture and the new reality of technology).

Of necessity Carlin and Fineberg have focused on the work of only a handful of artists. And though readers may object, "What about so-and-so..." it is clear that the book is intended to raise eyebrows and to encourage future investigation.

In 1947 American poet Charles Olson wrote in "Call me Ishmael": "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.... I spell it large because it comes large here...."

Many art historians have commented, likewise, on the "big country" landscapes of 19th-century painters who celebrated the enormous wilderness of North America, from sea to shining sea, and who seemed to express the American spirit of exploration as well as the refined skills of civilization.

Just inside the cover of "Imagining America," the large painting by Thomas Cole known as "The Oxbow" (approximately 4 ft. by 6 ft.) is juxtaposed with a photo of Robert Smithson's 1970 giant earth work, "The Spiral Jetty." [Editor's note: The original version mistitled "The Spiral Jetty."]

What Olson described as fundamental to the American experience, Cole painted in no uncertain terms. Big space, the wilderness, was changing fast and not all to the good, Cole seems to warn us.

Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," created more than 100 years later, echoes Cole's sense of encroaching civilization, as well as the idea of the artist as product of both nature and culture. Cole and Smithson each chose forms that symbolize eternity, and both works speak of change - both physical and metaphysical.

Carlin and Fineberg weave many such lovely threads of 19th- and 20th-century thought together, helping the reader get a sense of the depth and breadth of American expression. They remind us that the only way to understand history is by understanding that politics, social change, art, and technology are all threads of a larger tapestry.

The writers create a genuine sense of simultaneity - that music, literature, film, photography, and jazz, all fed on the same impulses and on one another, helping to change the way Americans thought about themselves and their speedily changing world. Each art form offers a different vantage point from which to see and understand.

They spend perhaps too much space on Andy Warhol and pop art, overrating his contributions and the importance of pop. But they do a bang-up job with Marcel Duchamp's blazing intellect; the heritage of Stuart Davis's pioneering abstract techniques, and Robert Rauschenberg's dazzling juxtapositions as he made meaning between the images.

The impact of popular culture on the arts and on human perception is explored with depth and precision, but not, alas, the spiritual impulses in so much of modern art - the implications of which would seem vastly more significant.

Still, from the roiling, gritty cityscapes of John Sloan to the sleek clarity of Georgia O'Keeffe's abstract Southwestern landscapes to the outward, "gestural" expressions of Jackson Pollack's inward creative spirit, his "action paintings," Carlin and Fineberg intrigue us and keep us looking for more.

This eminently readable book invites rereading, just as the sparkling companion documentary that aired on PBS late last year will no doubt find its way on air (or DVD) again.

M.S. Mason is a longtime Monitor arts contributor based in Denver.

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