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“Birth of contemporary art”, by Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel: the great decentering

“Birth of contemporary art. 1945-1970. A world history ”, by Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, CNRS Editions, 608 p., € 28, digital € 20.

While the American painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) had just won the prize at the Venice Biennale, in 1964, the editor-in-chief of the Parisian review Arts was alarmed by an artistic threat coming from across the Atlantic. We were faced with a “Test of the Americanization of spirit and customs”, he wrote, preparing us for “A great rivalry as imperialist and ruthless as the cold war”. But did this other war, which opposed New York to Paris for the role of center of artistic modernity, really take place?

Read also this tribune (2018): Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel: “The art of Koons is the philosophy of carrot juice”

Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, in an impressive journey through the history of art from 1945 to 1970, dismantles received ideas on this point. According to the canonical account, explains the art historian, “With the exile of the European abstract and surrealist avant-gardes in the United States and the appearance of American abstract expressionism, New York would have become the center of world artistic innovation”. Diplomatic, economic and artistic means were certainly not lacking in the United States to try to “Steal the idea of ​​modern art”, in the words of art historian Serge Guilbaut. But by broadening the geographic, social and economic focus to build a global perspective, as Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel does, the primacy of this bipolar New YorkParis axis no longer holds.

Often hidden places

After two volumes devoted to the history of the avant-garde between 1848 and 1945 (The artistic avant-garde. A transnational story, Folio, 2016-2017), which had led her to question the centrality of Paris before 1945, the author here deploys a historical fresco that links aesthetic questions to their social, institutional and economic conditions. Supported by a very vast bibliography and an attention to places (Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe …) often hidden, as well as to artists less known, but no less significant than these consecrated heroes of painting that were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) or Mark Rothko (1903-1970), “Connected history” defended in this book shows the emergence of a polycentric art world. Its essential dynamic is, precisely, the shift. Off-center, Rauschenberg, the winner of 1964 himself, who had not found his place in New York and was looking instead towards Europe and the Dada spirit.

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