Mexico and American Modernism


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Ellen G. Landau


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A revolutionary look at the profound impact of Mexico and its culture on the development of American modernism

In the years between the two world wars, the enormous vogue of "things Mexican" reached its peak. Along with the popular appeal of its folkloric and pictorialist traditions, Mexican culture played a significant role in the formation of modernism in the United States. Mexico and American Modernism analyzes the complex social, intellectual, and artistic ramifications of interactions between avant-garde American artists and Mexico during this critical period.

In this insightful book, Ellen G. Landau looks beyond the well-known European influences on modernism. Instead, she probes the lesser-known yet powerful connections to Mexico and Mexican art that can be seen in the work of four acclaimed mid-century American artists: Philip Guston (1913–1980), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). Landau details how these artists' relationships with the Mexican muralists, expatriate Surrealists, and leftist political activists of the 1930s and 1940s affected the direction of their art. Her analysis of this aesthetic cross-fertilization provides an important new framework for understanding the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School as a whole.

Ellen G. Landau is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emerita of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University and a leading expert on Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. She specializes in 20th-century American and European art and theory.

“In this captivating account, art historian Landau traces the oft-disregarded influence of Mexican culture and aesthetic sensibilities on American Modernism . . . Landau's nuanced approach teases out complex motivations such as love affairs, political sympathies, neuroses, friendships, grant money, and of course travels. What perhaps is most striking in this meticulously interwoven study are the chance meetings and happenstances that play such a profound role on their canvases and in their lives. This resistance to reductive proclamations is regrettably rare in art history. Landau's scholarship reanimates the complex intricacies of influence illuminating lives rather than resumes, to show the geopolitical and enigmatic impact Mexico as a place and culture held in the imagination of these American Modernists.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"The cultural exchanges between the US and Mexico that resulted in many WPA-funded murals are well known. Also known is the interest that artists from both countries had in going back and roth to work. . . . What is not so well known is how Mexico, its art, and its artists served as a crucial component for the development of modernism in the US. Landau. . .provides readers with the important exchanges between both and their consequences for the work of US artists associated primarily with Abstract Expressionism. . . . Recommended.”—Choice

“Given its expansive purview and its insightful and precise art historical analysis, Mexico and American Modernism is indispensable reading for anyone interested in a significant chapter in the history of artistic exchange between Mexico and the United States during the last century, as well as in many of the key transformations that defined modernist culture during the mid-twentieth-century.”—Luis M. Castañeda, Journal of Surrealism and the Americas

Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the Photography/Art Category.
Received an Honorable Mention for the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE), in the Art History & Criticism category.
Won a Honorable Mention for the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival in the Photography/Art Category.
ISBN: 9780300169133
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
224 pages, 8 1/2 x 10
39 color + 71 b/w illus.
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