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Documentary, book explore icons of 20th century American art

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


“image of an American Flag with stipes made from Campbell's soup cans and stars represented by an abstract painting”
Click photo to enlarge
“Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art” is scheduled to be broadcast Dec. 28 on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationwide; the book, which includes 400 color images, recently was published by Yale University Press.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You won’t need a Ph.D in art history to appreciate a new documentary and companion book on 20th-century American art by Jonathan Fineberg and John Carlin. The only prerequisite required of those tuning in or turning the pages of “Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art” is a genuine interest in the American experience.

In a conscious move to appeal to a broad and diverse audience – including those whose previous exposure to the visual arts has been minimal – the creators of the documentary and book have ventured beyond the more predictable, biographically based format. Instead, they’ve crafted an original narrative that places some of the 20th century’s most influential artists within the context of a broader story: that of a relatively young, rapidly evolving nation that is forever reinventing itself.

The two-hour documentary is scheduled to be broadcast Dec. 28 on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationwide; the book, which includes 400 color images, recently was published by Yale University Press.

Jonathon Fineberg sitting behind a tabletop sculpture that looks like it could be made of a large pile of red taffy
University of Illinois photo
Art historian Jonathan Fineberg wanted to draw attention to the ways in which art has reflected and helped shaped Americans’ personal and national cultural identities.

Fineberg, the Gutgsell Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he and Carlin, his former graduate assistant at Yale and now chief executive officer of the New York City-based media production company Funny Garbage, chose a slightly unconventional approach to their presentation of the history of 20th-century art because they wanted to draw attention to the ways in which art has reflected and helped shape Americans’ personal and national cultural identities.

“For me, this was an opportunity to contextualize works of art into an ongoing discourse about values and about history, and about where we are and who we are,” Fineberg said.

“And the film and book were structured around the most fundamental questions in a world view: Where am I? Who am I? And how do I talk about my experience?”

To answer those questions Fineberg and Carlin turned to examples of work by and archival interviews with some of the nation’s most recognizable artists of the last century; among them, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Those icons became springboards from which Fineberg and Carlin expanded the discussion to include other art-historical icons that may not be as well known to the greater public, figures such as Thomas Cole, Robert Smithson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman and David Wojnarowicz.

In telling their story, they interspersed art and artists’ interviews with on-camera commentary by Fineberg and other notable art historians, curators and artists. Among them were several with connections to the U. of I., including former School of Art and Design faculty members Rachael DeLue, Katherine Manthorne and Buzz Spector; and former Krannert Art Museum director Josef Helfenstein.

Another key ingredient folded into the documentary mix was music.

“We wanted to choose music -- and John took the lead in this -- that would be interesting to people, especially young people,” Fineberg said. “I don’t want people just my age and older watching it,” said the 59-year old professor. “I wanted to address them on a level that is familiar and interesting to them. It has to move fast because they move fast.”

The film and the book are based on three distinct themes or chapters. The first, “America Pastoral,” explores the ways in which artists interpret the natural world around them. Focusing on the work of Cole, O’Keeffe, Smithson and others, Fineberg and Carlin attempt to define and convey an American sense of nature.

The second section, “Songs of Myself,” looks at ways in which artists such as Pollock, Basquiat and Sherman represent themselves, and considers themes of reinvention and identity – on both a personal and national scale. The final theme, “The Media Is the Message,” draws on the work of Warhol, Wojnarowicz and others to document ways in which artists have helped us reinterpret our cultural self-image and identity in a mass-media dominated world.

The film version of “Imagining America” is a presentation of South Carolina Educational Television and a co-production of MUSE Film and Television, Public Media Inc., Funny Garbage and Perry Films. Major funding for its production was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional support from the U. of I., the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Endowment for the Arts.