Frances Pratt & Modern Alt  

When I was asked by Kassandra Kelly to help in research for her forthcoming book on encaustic painting, focusing on Frances Pratt, I became fascinated by her life and work, and the breadth of her activities as an author and collector. It would not be appropriate to suggest that she was a major figure as a painter, writer or collector; she was, instead, I think, something almost as interesting, an exemplar of a modernism that didn't quite happen. Here is the introduction to my essay on Pratt and the artists featured by Pratt & Fizell.

While still vital to the practice of encaustic painting, Encaustic Materials and Methods does something else quite interesting, documenting a peculiar strain of modernism -- call it “Modern Alt.” In addition to several of the Fayum portraits (see technical notes on this edition for more information), Encaustic Materials and Methods is illustrated with images by Rifka Angel, David Aronson, Victor Brauner, Frederick Conway, Esther Geller, Morris Shulman and Karl Zerbe. An avid student of Surrealism will recognize Brauner as an artist of some note, but most readers should be forgiven if the others are far less recognizable.

So I propose to read that selection of art and artists not merely for their particular innovations and achievements within the encaustic medium, but as comprising, with Pratt herself, the statement of a particular aesthetic; that is what I mean by “Modern Alt.” I wish I could take credit for that coinage, but it's not entirely original. Judith Bookbinder uses a variant as a subtitle of her Boston modern: figurative expressionism as alternative modernism (2005) and Greg Cook has written at length about the "alternative universe" of figurative expressionism that linked Boston, Chicago and the Bay Area.

Cook, in particular, is strong on this point, arguing that “historians failed to connect the dots among [these] related developments” in his counter-history to the “triumphant narrative of abstract art.” Bookbinder puts it a little more cannily, though also problematically, as a Northern strain of modernism, which is of course a not very subtly coded "not Spanish" or, bluntly, "not Picasso."

Of course, the surest way to excite a polemical frenzy would be to argue whether France should be counted as "north" or "south" - but that kind of geographic essentialism or, more gently, perhaps just regional boosterism, doesn't work and elides the real problems which so frequently undermine these kinds of alternate histories. Picasso did indeed leave his Blue and Rose periods for Cubism. Yet, de Kooning's decisive Women, so profoundly important in asserting the ascension of the New York School, remained manifestly “figurative” and “expressionistic.” Jackson Pollock was first championed for his tortured Jungian tribalisms, only subsequently abandoning them, if only briefly, for weightlessness. Mark Rothko, too, continued to work in a vein closely related to Surrealist autonomism well into the 1940s and, indeed, some of the the artists indissociable from Manhattan of the 1940s and 1950s remained consistently apart from Cook's “fine-art Manhattan Project aimed at breaking art down to its atomic essence” – one can hardly fail to reckon Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers as explicitly New York artists, yet still outliers.

In a limited sense, Cook is correct; there are always exclusions from the “official version of events,” yet the intensity with which he pursues his “alternate universe” is, for me at least, uncomfortable; Bookbinder's general notion of another modernism, call it a "sur-modernism," is generally the more persuasive. And she is not altogether incorrect in seeing Boston as an epicenter of sorts for that competing nexus of influence; at the same time, as some of the examples above suggest, it is hardly the case that one can so neatly map these geographies and genealogies.

Indeed, while praising Bookbinder's treatment of both the Boston artists and their institutional milieu, A. Joan Saab nonetheless concluded with a wish “that instead of arguing for Boston Modem as an alternative form of modernism she had argued for a more inclusive form that would encompass Boston, New York, and a variety of other Moderns.

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