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Although Lewis Mumford is widely acknowledged as the seminal American critic of architecture and urbanism in the twentieth century, he is less known for his art criticism. He began contributing to this field in the early 1920s, and his influence peaked between 1932 and 1937, when he was art critic for the New Yorker. This book, for the first time, assembles Mumford's important art criticism in a single volume. His columns bring wit and insight to bear on a range of artists, from establishment figures like Matisse and Brancusi to relatively new arrivals like Reginald Marsh and Georgia O'Keeffe. These articles provide an unusual window onto the New York art scene just as it was casting off provincialism in favor of a more international outlook. On a deeper level, the columns probe beneath the surface of modern art, revealing an alienation that Mumford believed symptomatic of a larger cultural disintegration.
Many of the themes Mumford addresses overlap with those of his more familiar architectural criticism: the guiding role of the past in stimulating creativity in the present, the increasing congestion of the modern metropolis, the alarming lack of human control over modern technology, and the pressing need to restore organic balance to everyday living. Though he was open to new movements emanating from Europe, Mumford became the chief advocate of a progressive American modernism that was both socially aware and formally inventive.
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) is widely celebrated as a seminal critic of architecture, urbanism, technology, and American culture, but he is less recognized for his important work in art criticism. Mumford, in fact, regarded the study of art as essential to understanding the human condition, and this thread is woven into his writings across seemingly disparate fields. He began writing art criticism in the early 1920s, and his influence peaked in the mid-1930s when he became a regular columnist for the New Yorker. Appearing under the heading "The Art Galleries," his columns provide an unusual window into the rapidly evolving American art scene during the Great Depression. Mumford, although open to new movements emanating from Europe, advocated a progressive American modernism that was both socially aware and formally inventive. On a deeper level, his columnsuncovered a creative alienation among modern artists that he believed to be symptomatic of a larger cultural disintegration, one in which the emergent evils of Nazism and fascism were only the most obvious manifestations.
Mumford on Modern Art in the 1930s assembles for the first time Mumford's work as an art critic-long buried in back issues of the New Yorker-into a single accessible volume that complements several collections of his architectural criticism already in print. Many of the themes he addresses in "The Art Galleries" overlap with his more familiar architectural criticism: the guiding role of the past in stimulating creativity in the present, the increasing congestion of the modern metropolis, the alarming lack of human control over modern technology, and the pressing need to restore organic balance to everyday living. Other themes, such as the driving role of abstraction in modern expression, are wholly specific to the visual arts. Read together, the pieces form a prelude to Mumford's subsequent studies of human forms and values on which his larger critical reputation now rests.
The path that led Mumford to art criticism was both inadvertent and circuitous. Born in 1895 to a single mother, he was raised in modest circumstances on New York's Upper West Side. Some of his fondest early memories involved trips with his stepgrandfather around the city and, in particular, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Among the many books he recalled reading during his youth were Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects and John Ruskin's Modern Painters. A gifted but indifferent student, Mumford graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in 1912 with only average grades. He attended both the day and evening sessions of the City College of New York but left higher education before earning his baccalaureate degree.
Despite his lackluster academic performance, Mumford flourished intellectually outside the classroom. He was determined to become an independent writer and philosopher, finding an unusual role model in the Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. Geddes, whose writings Mumford first encountered in a college biology class, preached an interdisciplinary, evolutionary, and organic approach to understanding modern society in which art would become a major component in fostering postindustrial human renewal. Geddes's impact on Mumford was total, and it is significant to note here that among Geddes's early publications are guidebooks to major art exhibitions in Manchester and Glasgow, both published under the disarmingly simple title of Every Man His Own Art Critic. The guidebooks were basic primers in art appreciation, but imbued with the Scotsman's peculiar outlook on social evolution. In many of his later writings, Geddes urged the gathering of factual information about cities and their regions via a firsthand observation process that he termed "regional survey." Consequently, Mumford walked the streets of New York, notepad in hand, scribbling notes and drawing scenery. He eventually began experimenting with watercolors as well, and although he never pursued his artistic efforts very far, they brought him a great deal of personal pleasure.
By the early 1920s, Mumford had established himself as a freelance writer and journalist on a variety of topics-sociology, politics, urban planning, and the arts-for a variety of journals, including the Dial, the Sociological Review, the Freeman, the American Mercury, the New Republic, and the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. He completed his first book, The Story of Utopias, in 1922 while still under the influence of Geddes, and it established "eutopia"-the "good place" achievable through rational, organic planning-as the dominant theme of his entire writing career. Near the book's conclusion, Mumford argued that a major step toward reaching this goal would be the reintegration of artists into the social mainstream: "In the good life, the purely esthetic element has a prominent place; but unless the artist is capable of moving men to the good life, the esthetic element is bound to be driven farther and farther away from the common realities, until the world of the artist will scarcely be distinguishable from the phantasia of dementia præcox.... If the arts are not to disintegrate utterly, must they not focus more and more upon eutopia?" The Story of Utopias garnered positive notices, and it helped launch Mumford's career in cultural criticism.
During the 1920s, Mumford traveled in two distinct social and intellectual circles largely based in New York City: the first revolved around architecture and urban and regional planning and the second around literature and the fine arts. His writings both reflected these dual contacts and transcended them via the all-embracing theme of organic, cultural renewal. Through his work for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Mumford was introduced to the first group, an informal think tank known as the Regional Planning Association of America, which included architects, planners, conservationists, economists, writers, and philanthropists. The association advocated the decongestion of the modern metropolis and the creation of affordable housing in accordance with the regionalism of Geddes and the garden city model of Ebenezer Howard, the English reformer. The architect Clarence Stein led the group, and Mumford served as its secretary and publicist. The association is best known for its promotion of the Appalachian Trail-the brainchild of member Benton MacKaye-and for its development of two planned communities in the New York metropolitan region inspired by the garden city: Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, and Radburn, New Jersey. Combining the theoretical background derived from Geddes and the practical experience drawn from the association, Mumford emerged as the enfant terrible of architectural critics in numerous essays and reviews of the 1920s. His 1924 book Sticks and Stones was a radical retelling of American architectural history from a social perspective, and it branded him an iconoclast opposed to romantic revivalism and supportive of emerging European modernist ideals.
Mumford's second circle was composed of established writers, critics, and artists who worked for the myriad literary and political journals that flourished in New York during this period. The scholar Casey Nelson Blake identified its core members-Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Mumford-as the "Young Americans," radical critics who profoundly reshaped the postwar intellectual climate of the United States. Others in this circle included Harold Stearns, Hendrik van Loon, Joel Elias Spingarn, John Dewey, Paul Rosenfeld, Walter Pach, and Alfred Stieglitz. Unlike the Regional Planning Association of America, this group was never organized, although several of its members initially gathered around Stearns, who edited an ambitious cultural omnibus published in 1922 as Civilization in the United States. Mumford's piece concerned the imperiled state of American cities, and, as a measure of the young writer's growing reputation, Stearns positioned it first in the volume. Once associated with this group, Mumford was quickly drawn into its lively debates concerning modernism in the arts and America's place vis-à-vis new developments in Europe. Greenwich Village, then in its heyday as a crucible of creative and social experimentation, was the locus of many of the group's activities. Mumford and his wife, Sophia (1899-1997), a former Dial colleague whom he married in 1921, actually resided in the Village briefly before decamping to Brooklyn Heights and, subsequently, to Sunnyside Gardens. Their son, Geddes, named for Mumford's early mentor, was born in 1925.
Within the group, Mumford drew closest in friendship to Van Wyck Brooks, a colleague at the short-lived Freeman and an accomplished literary critic. Brooks surveyed the state of American literature in his essay for Civilization in the United States, but it was his earlier piece "On Creating a Usable Past" that first caught Mumford's attention. Believing that America had dwelt too long in the cultural shadow of Europe, Brooks urged his younger colleagues to join him in unearthing America's "usable past," its writers and artists from earlier generations who had made original, creative contributions to a nascent national culture but who had not been given their proper due by contemporary critics. In response to Brooks's challenge, Mumford's next book, The Golden Day, identified a literary pantheon of five nineteenth-century writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Mumford's fourth book, a biography of Melville, deepened his investigative journey into the "usable past." Both Mumford and Brooks believed that contemporary writers and artists would be spurred to new creative heights once these connections to their forebears had been reestablished.
If Brooks was Mumford's strongest literary influence, then Joel Spingarn similarly affected Mumford's ideas concerning art criticism and aesthetics. An eminent critic and former Columbia University professor, Spingarn wrote on the state of American criticism for Stearns's volume. He believed that criticism was itself a creative act, and, recognizing Mumford's potential in this area, he urged his younger colleague to undertake a closer study of aesthetics, including the works of Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich von Schiller, George Santayana, and especially Benedetto Croce. Even though, as Mumford later recalled, he "was put off by the aesthetically irrelevant nature of most of this literature," he found much to ponder, specifically in Croce's ideas concerning the roles of intuition and expression in criticizing works of art.
In 1924, Mumford published a fictionalized dialogue about Croce's ideas in the American Mercury, which he titled "Æsthetics: A Palaver." The dialogue was based upon a conversation that Mumford had had with Spingarn, Brooks, and two other friends at Troutbeck, Spingarn's Dutchess County, New York, country house three years earlier. What disturbed Mumford about Croce's aesthetics was the philosopher's separation of an object's practical qualities from its aesthetic and his insistence on criticism for the sake of criticism. Mumford, who, like Geddes, sought to break down such intellectual barriers, could not accept this kind of categorization. Not surprisingly, Charles Adams, the character who expressed Mumford's viewpoint in the dialogue, used an organic metaphor in the manner of Geddes to state his position:
To begin with, I can't accept the Crocean divorce between the practical and the æsthetic or ideal: it is a dialectical subterfuge, and its sole effect is to embarrass criticism with tautologies. Soil, seed, plant, and flower are one in life, and I would take the metaphor over bodily and say that they are one in literature: cut the flower away from the plant and it soon ceases to be a flower. Art can grow and reproduce and scatter its seeds in the hearts of men only when the conditions ... are favorable. The good critic is therefore a gardener who pays attention to all the conditions that environ the production of a work of art. It is only when he has secured the best possible conditions in his own community that he is free to taste and enjoy, and to lead others to this pleasure.
Despite Mumford's criticism of Croce, Spingarn liked "Æsthetics" so much that he had it privately printed as a pamphlet. Their deepening friendship, moreover, soon prompted Mumford and his wife to begin spending their summers in the village of Leedsville adjacent to Troutbeck, where Spingarn hoped to nurture an artists' and writers' colony. Although Spingarn's vision never fully materialized, the Mumfords found themselves drawn to country living, purchasing a small farmhouse in Leedsville in 1929. For the next seven years they divided their time between the city and the country.
Through Stearns's project Mumford also met the artist and critic Walter Pach, who developed extensive connections to European modern artists during his many years of living abroad. Pach earlier had assisted Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn in organizing the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, a controversial traveling survey of European and American modern art that became known popularly as the Armory Show after its New York venue, the Lexington Avenue Armory. Pach included three of his own works in the American section, and he wrote some of the supporting material for the exhibition. At each of its stops-New York, Chicago, and Boston-the Armory Show scandalized both critics and the public, who were unaccustomed to the radical experiments of the fauves, cubists, expressionists, and other European modernists. Viewers especially savaged Marcel Duchamp's infamous 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) because of its abstracted and fragmentary treatment of the human nude. Yet despite widespread resistance modern art had gained a foothold in the United States. Along with Duchamp and the collector Walter Arensberg, Pach subsequently formed the Society of Independent Artists to provide American modernists with a sympathetic forum for their works via annual exhibitions. Mumford did not attend the Armory Show, since he would have been only seventeen years old during its New York run. "I was then too young and callow even to visit that exhibition, let alone respond to it," he wrote in his autobiography. Nevertheless, he was well aware of the Armory Show's significance by the time he met Pach.
Pach contributed an essay simply titled "Art" to Civilization in the United States, and it opened Mumford's eyes to several key artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, John La Farge, and Maurice Prendergast. Furthermore, Pach argued for the development of modern art along distinctly American lines: "There is no question to-day but that America must evolve along the lines of contemporary thought throughout the civilized world. There will be a local tang to our art. Certain enthusiasms and characteristics, as we develop them, may give emphasis to special phases of our production, but there is no longer the possibility of an isolated, autochthonic growth, such as seemed to be forecast up to about the time of the [American] Revolution."
Excerpted from Mumford on Modern Art in the 1930s Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
“The Metropolitan Milieu”
“The Art Galleries: The Taste of Today.” New Yorker VIII (October 1, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: Shows Abroad.” New Yorker VIII (October 8, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: Mr. Bloom’s Anniversary; And a Disciple of Atget.” New
Yorker VIII (October 15, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: Seventy Years; The Work of Mary Cassatt.” New Yorker VIII
(November 12, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: Marin; Miró.” New Yorker VIII (November 19, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: American Paintings.” New Yorker VIII (December 10, 1932)
“The Art Galleries: Paint and Stone.” New Yorker VIII (January 21, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: World Tour.” New Yorker IX (February 18, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Cabarets and Clouds.” New Yorker IX (April 1, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Impressionism and the Circus; Three Decades.” New Yorker
IX (April 22, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Resurrection; And the Younger Generation.” New Yorker IX (May 13, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: The Summer Circuit.” New Yorker IX (August 12, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: West, South, and Across the Harlem.” New Yorker IX (September 23, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Miniatures and Heirlooms.” New Yorker IX (October 21, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Extramural Activities.” New Yorker IX (October 28, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Two Americans.” New Yorker IX (November 11, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: New York Under Glass.” New Yorker IX (November 25,
“The Art Galleries: The Frozen Nightmares of Señor Dali.” New Yorker IX
(December 9, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Across the Hudson; Jean Lurçat’s ' Double Bill; Paints,
Pastels, and the Parthenon.” New Yorker IX (December 30, 1933)
“The Art Galleries: Rivera and the Workers.” New Yorker IX (January 13, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Portrait of the Mechanic as a Young Man; Newcomers in
Retrospect.” New Yorker X (March 31, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Circus Time; Statues and Prints; Americana.” New Yorker X
(April 7, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Memorials and Moderns,” New Yorker X (April 14, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Benton of Missouri; A Galaxy of Goyas.” New Yorker X
(April 21, 1934), 55-57
“The Art Galleries: Toyshop; Reflections on Mediocrity.” New Yorker X (April
“The Art Galleries: Tips for Travellers; The Modern Museum.” New Yorker X
(June 9, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Critics and Cameras.” New Yorker X (September 29, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: A Catalogue and Homer.” New Yorker X (October 20, 1934)
“The Art Galleries:
In Memoriam.” New Yorker X (November 17, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: Marin and Others.” New Yorker X (November 24, 1934)
“The Art Galleries: A Camera and Alfred Stieglitz.” New Yorker X (December
“The Art Galleries: Anniversary; Post-Centenary Whistler; Mr. Curry and the
American Scene.” New Yorker X (February 2, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: Lachaise and O’Keeffe.” New Yorker X (February 9, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: Paints, Palettes, and the Public Wall.” New Yorker XI
(February 16, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: New High in Abstractions,” New Yorker XI (March 2, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: The Dark Continent; And George Grosz.” New Yorker XI
(March 30, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: Mirrors and the Metropolitan.” New Yorker XI (April 6,
“The Art Galleries: The Three Bentons.” New Yorker XI (April 20, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: A Group of Americans.” New Yorker XI (May 4, 1935)
“The Art Galleries:
In Capitulation.” New Yorker XI (June 1, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: Léger and the Machine.” New Yorker XI (October 19, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: A Synopsis of Ryder.” New Yorker XI (November 2, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: The Work of van Gogh.” New Yorker XI (November 16, 1935)
“The Art Galleries: Autobiographies in Paint.” New Yorker XI (January 18, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Group Shows and Solos.” New Yorker XI (January 25, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Goya, Homer, and Jones.” New Yorker XI (February 8, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: William Gropper and an Open Letter.” New Yorker XI
(February 15, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: The Course of Abstraction.” New Yorker XII, (March 21,
“The Art Galleries: Drawings and Illustrations; Pictures for the Public.” New
Yorker XII (May 16, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Looking Backward, Looking Forward.” New Yorker XII (June
“The Art Galleries: East and West.” New Yorker XII (September 26, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: The Treasury’s Murals.” New Yorker XII (October 17, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: John Marin.” New Yorker XII (October 31, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Pablo Picasso.” New Yorker XII (November 14, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Moderns: Assorted.” New Yorker XII (November 28, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: On Reproductions.” New Yorker XII (December 12, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Surrealism and Civilization.” New Yorker XII (December 19,
“The Art Galleries: Winslow Homer.” New Yorker XII (December 26, 1936)
“The Art Galleries: Wood and Stone.” New Yorker XII (February 13, 1937)
“The Art Galleries: The Life of the City.” New Yorker XIII (February 27,
“The Art Galleries: Prints and Paints.” New Yorker XIII (April 3, 1937)
“The Art Galleries: Academicians and Others.” New Yorker XIII (April 10, 1937)
“The Art Galleries: Pierre-Auguste Renoir.” New Yorker XIII (June 5, 1937)