U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lacy On Cándida Smith: Thinking Through Modern Art

Review of Richard Cándida Smith’s The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). ISBN 978-0-8122-4188-4. 252 pages.

Review by Tim Lacy
University of Illinois at Chicago
April 2010

Thinking Through Modern Art

In The Modern Moves West, Berkeley Professor Richard Cándida Smith tackles the intellectual and cultural history of modern art in California. He explores aesthetic theory, the core-periphery tension in the institutional art world, art education, and the potentially explosive intersections of art and politics. By focusing on visual, stationary media in the work of Sam Rodia, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Noah Purifoy, Marcos Ramírez ERRE, and Daniel Joseph Martínez, Cándida Smith presents an incredibly rich look at California’s pantheon of twentieth-century modern artists.

To read this book is to enter a world where a particular community used painting, sculpture, and assemblage art to grapple with the acids and innovations of modernity. In relation to California and the American West, Patricia Nelson Limerick’s notion of a “the legacy of conquest” is implicitly at work in Cándida Smith’s narrative. California is indeed a land of jostling due to internal migration, immigration, and racial politics.[1] But this book concentrates on explaining how modern art, and its postmodern successors, assisted in bringing these conflicting cultural visions together under a democratic aesthetic as the twentieth century progressed.

The Modern Moves West is a recent addition to Penn Press’s new series, “The Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America,” edited by Casey Nelson Blake. That series welcomes manuscripts “in architecture and the visual arts or music, dance, theater, and literature.” Thus far the visual arts seem prominent, but there are only six books in the series.[2] If Cándida Smith’s contribution is indicative of the series on the whole, then that endeavor is intent on underscoring how art enriches America’s intellectual life, and how all of this comes together to foster (or hamper) democracy.

In his introduction, Cándida Smith offers a number of formulations of his thesis in relation to the themes outlined above. I believe, however, that the following …[Continue here]