Modernism, Essentialism, and “Racial Art” in America

Jacqueline Francis. Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 256 pp., 12 color ills., 47 b/w. $40 paper

ShiPu Wang. Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. 208 pp., 38 b/w ills. $56

Jacqueline Francis. Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America
Jacqueline Francis. Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America

It is exciting to read two books that demonstrate the power, impact, and necessity of art history’s engagement with critical race studies—especially in the context of scholarship on modernist American art. Jacqueline Francis’s important book, Making Race: Modern­ism and “Racial Art” in America, breaks new terrain and should be required reading for both faculty and students invested in the history of twentieth-century United States visual culture. Francis provides a finely tuned argument about the problem of making race matter in American visual culture. She stakes out the major conceptual, historical, and theoretical issues involved in writing and thinking about American cultural history in ways that have all too often been ignored by art historians. Her book is a comparative history of three painters—Malvin Gray Johnson, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Max Weber—whose work was received as “racial art” in early twentieth-century America. It is also a carefully nuanced, sophisticated account of why writing a historical account of “racial art” is crucial for understanding not just the time in which these painters lived and worked, but also our own time. Her knowledge of the careers and reputations of these three painters, her mastery of the complex historical and theoretical debates of their time, and her ability to analyze diverse cultural positions and artistic genres in an integrated way is deeply impressive. Francis’s book underscores the key place critical race studies should occupy in today’s discipline of art history.

During the early twentieth century, the category of “racial art” was a common framework for cultural and artistic analysis in the United States. In her first few chapters, Francis defines the term’s cultural meanings and its importance for art history. In constructing her account of “racial art,” she interweaves discussion of both contemporary theory and art-historical debates about multiculturalism and racialized identities with close reading of a wide range of primary sources drawn from the artistic culture of early twentieth-century New York. In doing so, she clearly defines the racialized identities and cultural positions these three painters were imagined to inhabit by their predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon audiences; perhaps most important, she also takes the time and space to explore how the artists negotiated those racialized identities within their careers and their paintings. She focuses on the agency of each painter within the context of defining “racial art” and the ways in which each artist was particularized and racialized as an essentially modern artist because of his cultural difference—i.e., because he was not white. In this way, Francis helps readers to see in concrete terms how each painter grappled with a range of complex pressures, social and cultural conditions, and aesthetic demands even as each worked to achieve his painterly ambitions. With this masterful analysis of primary sources which are likely little known to general readers, Francis reminds us that black, Asian, and Jewish artists like Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber were perceived as essentially modern in the early twentieth century because of their “race.” Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber’s embodied, nonwhite, non-Westernized or ethnicized, non-Christian identities echoed modernist appropriations of the “foreign” and the “primitive” in ways that seemed to be “natural” in the eyes of white critics and curators. Yet one of the book’s greatest strengths is the way in which Francis presses readers to recognize how each of these artists mobilized the specificity of racialized “essence” with which he was typically labeled—Negro, Oriental, Jewish—in ways that at times resisted or manipulated those racialized “essences” for his own artistic purposes.

The book is organized around several key themes drawn from stereotypes about “racial” and “ethnic” art as they are explored in three genres of painting: religious art, portraiture, and landscape. This approach enables Francis to complicate our understanding of what “racial art” meant in the early twentieth century. Francis is strongest in her work on portraiture, both of the artist’s self and some broader notion of community, whether local, regional, or international. Yet in her writing on all three genres, Francis carefully articulates how pervasively a racialized logic prevailed within the New York art world in which Johnson, Kuniyoshi, and Weber worked. When they painted social types, regional or national landscapes, or images of particular religious practices and communities, their modernist works relied on stereotypes common within these genres even as they sometimes resisted, or were visibly ambivalent about, those stereotypes. Francis points out that the Euro-American investment in style itself—and in the context of the early twentieth century, this meant an expressionist approach marked by heightened color, derealized form, and a certain degree of pictorial distortion—drew critics and historians to these artists’ works. She analyzes how the white critical establishment viewed expressionism made by racialized artists of African, Asian, and Jewish heritage as both an essential connection to “modernism” and to some inherent, and visibly nonwhite, non-Christian “racial” or “ethnic” identity.

Making Race is an important contribution to the growing body of critical art history focused on modernism in the United States, and will become essential reading for scholars and students of American cultural history and politics of the twentieth century. That said, one frustrating aspect of the book is that a number of the works that Francis discusses at some length, and with close visual attention, are not reproduced in the book. Part of this is because, as Francis notes, the estate of Max Weber refused to release his work for publication in a book that situated him within an argument about “racial art.” As scholars working on twentieth-century artists know well, the issue of scholarly argumentation butting up against a family’s own wishes and ideas about their artist relative’s legacy is always difficult to navigate. Unfortunately, the lack of images in the book has an impact on the reader’s ability to follow some of Francis’s close readings. The gap is also probably due to financial restrictions beyond Francis’s control at a time when academic presses are increasingly pressured to reduce costs, and authors face steep fees for reproduction rights. The book would have benefited immensely from greater support for image reproduction (especially in color), since the work by the artists Francis writes about is much less widely available than that of many of their white contemporaries.

Francis notes at the end of her book that as scholars today, “we hail diversity as a positive and desired outcome,” but “ask all too few questions about the composition of ‘difference,’ or of sameness” (153). What Francis has given us with this excellent, critically astute book is a way to begin to investigate such questions of difference and sameness within a complex historical and theoretical matrix. She has done so with sophistication, poise, and an urgent sense of the stakes involved. Making Race is a “must read” for those pushing to open new avenues of scholarship and debate within the practice of critical race art history.

ShiPu Wang’s Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi directly confronts many of the problems outlined by Francis in Making Race . Wang pushes his readers to explore how Kuniyoshi’s artistic reputation shaped, and was shaped by, assumptions about what it meant to be an American artist in the mid-twentieth century. It explores how Kuniyoshi faced a range of challenges to become the truly American artist he felt himself to be, due in part to his identity as an immigrant Japanese artist, as well as to the exclusionary, anti-Asian laws and practices of the United States governmental and cultural institutions during the 1930s and 1940s.

ShiPu Wang. Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi
ShiPu Wang. Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi’s investment in portraiture as a space in which to “resist the binaries of the conceptualized Orient and Occident” emerges in Francis’s account of the painter’s work (95). Wang’s book pushes deeper into these issues by focusing throughout on Kuniyoshi’s work and his navigation of the complex cultural and political context of the 1940s and, in particular, the years during and just after World War II. Wang’s argument revolves around the notion that Kuniyoshi experienced a profound rupture in his social and cultural status and self-image during the war when, reportedly, the painter was shocked to recognize that he was not the “critically recognized American artist” he believed himself to be (6). In the context of a “global war with strong racial underpinnings” his Japanese “origin. . . threatened to obliterate the American credentials he had earned through his artistic achievements” (6). Wang’s analytic framework helps readers to see the complexity and ambivalence of Kuniyoshi’s position and self-image during the war years. This is what sets his book apart from the bulk of the English-language scholarly literature on Kuniyoshi.

One of the most prominent painters in New York during the 1930s and 1940s, Kuniyoshi was the first living artist to be granted a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1948. Kuniyoshi had effectively become American within the New York art world by the late 1930s and early 1940s. But the declaration of war with Japan by the United States transformed the dominant cultural framework for understanding what it meant to be American—it increasingly meant being white—but also Kuniyoshi’s own notion of his place in the city and, after World War II, the country which he’d made his home since emigrating from Osaka, Japan, in 1906. Wang’s book focuses on the wartime moment in which Kuniyoshi experienced an “identity crisis” with respect to his identity as an American artist (6). It weaves together political and cultural history of the late 1930s and 1940s with focused, well-contextualized visual analysis of Kuniyoshi’s painting and works of a number of his Euro-American contemporaries (Ben Shahn foremost among them). Like Kuniyoshi, these artists were interested in putting their art in the service of the United States Office of War Information (OWI) or in weaving more subtle references to war and the anxieties it produced into their painting during and just after the war.

Thus, Wang uses the war as a fulcrum to unlock some of the assumptions, perceptions, and complexities of Kuniyoshi’s own sense of artistic identity and the ways that identity intersected variously with the racialized perceptions of a largely white New York art world in the early 1940s. At the same time, Wang presses readers to explore what it meant for an artist of Japanese heritage who lived outside the internment camps, in New York City, to confront racism, prejudice, social and cultural stereotypes, and anti-Asian hysteria. Becoming American? is, as Wang notes, the first scholarly account of Kuniyoshi’s wartime work; Wang’s project is to construct a compelling, well-researched narrative about how, why, and in what ways Kuniyoshi tried to negotiate both the “impact of personal and historical crises” and the increasingly shrill “debates” about national and cultural identity, cultural assimilation, “racial essentialism,” and notions of Ameri­can patriotism during and just after World War II (9).

Wang pays particular attention to Kuniyoshi’s immigrant Japanese identity and noncitizen legal status. Because he was an immigrant Japanese artist who lived and worked outside the camps, Kuniyoshi’s experiences during and after the war made him deeply aware of his racialized identity in United States culture. Although his artistic success gained him access to many of the most influential galleries, critics, and cultural circles of the early twentieth century, he struggled throughout the 1940s to prove himself American. Wang convincingly illustrates this problem by discussing a chilling photograph published in Time magazine that depicted three immigrant artists—Kuniyoshi, George Grosz, and Jon Corbino, each of “Axis” origin—with their anti-Axis artwork, and a caption that implied that their “good hate” of their birth countries (Japan, Germany, and Italy, respectively) demonstrated their loyalty to the United States and guaranteed their essential “Americanness” (1–3). Wang’s decision to reproduce this photograph at the very beginning of his book clearly stakes out the conceptual framework he uses throughout the text, which aims to historically contextualize Kuniyoshi’s precarious position in American cultural and political life in the 1940s.

Wang’s best work emerges in his thoughtful investigation of Kuniyoshi’s wartime propaganda work for the OWI in the chapter entitled “Picturing an Identity Crisis.” Following chapters setting the stage for Kuniyoshi’s efforts at “painting American” and negotiating issues and questions about “Japaneseness” in culture and in his own painting, this chapter on the OWI poster work offers some of the most compelling and important points about how Kuniyoshi pragmatically negotiated his position as an assimilated American when West Coast immigrants and citizens of Japanese descent were confined to internment camps (25). Wang’s analyses of Kuniyoshi’s OWI poster work demonstrate his scholarly interest in close visual observation, as well as his desire to set Kuniyoshi into a larger cultural and artistic context by linking his wartime propaganda work to other more overtly fine-art practices in the years after the war, and also by highlighting his friendships and collaborations with other New York artists.

Wang’s investment in exploring the ambiguity, tension, and complexity of Kuniyoshi’s status as an assimilated Japanese American artist enables this book to mark an important new direction in the scholarship on Kuniyoshi. It stands as an essential cornerstone of what I hope to be a renewed scholarly interest in exploring the varied facets of the painter’s work and reputation before, during, and after World War II. Kuniyoshi, after all, was one of the most celebrated and important American artists of the first part of the twentieth century in New York, although today’s histories of twentieth-century American painting mention him as only a minor figure. The historical record, as Wang helps us see, contradicts such assumptions. With the rise of new models of artistic quality, an emphasis on “pure” abstraction, and the rejection of “political” or propaganda work during the Cold War, Kuniyoshi’s stature as one of the best-known and widely exhibited painters of the 1930s and 1940s has been forgotten. Perhaps Wang’s book will help to catalyze renewed interest in the work of one of America’s prominent early twentieth-century painters—even as Kuniyoshi’s practice remains difficult to grasp because of a lack of scholarship, at least until now.

Francis’s Making Race and Wang’s Becoming American? are welcome signs of a rich, vibrant, and historically significant set of new directions in the practice of critical race art history. Although the Association for Critical Race Art History is increasingly visible with a strong web presence, there is more work to do in order to push the field of art history in new directions, and to foreground questions of race, essentialism, modernism, and national identity within the study of American visual culture. Francis and Wang have provided excellent models for paths toward a more robust body of critical race art history. The next steps still await, but art historians are lucky to have the work of Francis and Wang on which to build.


Amy Lyford is professor of art history at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950 (University of California Press, 2013), and Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post–World War I Reconstruction in France (University of California Press, 2007).


This review originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Art Journal.