Thursday, January 01, 2015

America's Art by Theresa J. Slowik

In 2006, the Smithsonian Institution had a major renovation of their American Art Museum in Washington, DC -- it actually reopened in its real home after six years in temporary space elsewhere -- and so it wanted to celebrate.

And the way a big cultural institution celebrates something is by publishing a book -- well, sometimes it has a big exhibition instead, but that generally turns into a book eventually, so it's all the same thing in the end -- so that's what the Smithsonian did. That book was America's Art, a big retrospective of the sweep and majesty of the history of American art, as illustrated by things that the Smithsonian happened to own and have on display. The book is credited to Theresa J. Slowik, the Chief of Publications of the Smithsonian, though it clearly was an institutional effort.

It's a great slab of an object, roughly eleven by fifteen inches, and its creamy thick 326 pages make it more than two inches thick: this is an impressive example of the bookmaker's art, though not something to carry around and read on the subway. The printing is crisp and clear, with great color -- it's from Abrams, one of the premier art-book publishers in the world, so that's to be expected.

This must have been an artifact of my book-club days, either something another club offered or a discard I grabbed when it hit the fabled freebie shelf. But it's been bouncing around my house for most of a decade now, so my memory is fuzzy. I finally pulled it out and looked through it recently, finding pretty much what I expected: it opens with a couple of hundred years of landscapes and portraits of very varied ability, most of which are more interesting as historical representations of life than as art qua art. Things get more exciting towards the end of the 19th century, and there's plenty of good art from the 20th, though with some odd omissions. (Of course, the Smithsonian can only choose from what it has, so if some artists aren't represented in the museum, they won't be in the book.)

In our Internet age, I wonder if the art-book business is still going at all strongly. Yes, screen are ever more detailed and broadband allows us to see higher-resolution pictures than ever before. But images look different on a backlit screen than they do as physical objects, and that's a major difference with art. A good art book, printed well and chosen carefully, still has an important role to play, and I hope that isn't disappearing. Anyway, this is a solid, impressive book of art made in North America from roughly the three hundred years beginning about 1700, for those whose shelves and/or coffee tables can support such a thing.

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