Book Reviews

Understanding Modern Art


Having been an Art Major myself, I always find the phrase, "Understanding Modern Art" amusing. The subject is so elusive it almost defies cognizant thought. David Beasley in his work on this discipline comes as close as anyone in his research of Clay Edgar Spohn. Spohn's accomplishments and name are fashionable only to a select circle, yet expansive both in nature and scope. Beasley's research uncovers the force beneath Spohn's unique style. He goes to great lengths to reveal the potential impressions of an artist who developed his genera of expression long before there was an audience to embrace it. Like most modern artists, Spohn's work defies singular interpretation. Yet Beasley shows how this obscure master represents himself clearly. This book would make an ideal reference source for libraries catering to the understanding of Clay Edgar Spohn--and possibly, "Understanding Modern Art."--

Douglas L. Quentin, Books of the Southwest


visual arts NOTABLE BOOK
This eminently readable, vivid account of the American artist, Clay Edgar Spohn (1898-1977) provides numerous revelations about modern art, isms, and art institutions. It is a chronicle that skillfully interweaves the artistic developments of an individual with the movements and attitudes in society as a whole. Spohn's early years reflected the classical biographical scenario of conflict between the pursuit of material stability encouraged by his father and the pursuit of a "calling" as encouraged by his artist-mother. Clay's parents attempted to contain his spirit and natural bent through stints with the Augusta Military Academy in Virginia and enrollment in economics at the University of California in Berkeley. They finally yielded and agreed to finance his studies at the New York Art Students League, where he arrived from San Francisco in 1922. Rigorous training based on academic European tradition, from visionary teachers such as Kimon Nicolaides, George Luks and others, assured Spohn a means of livelihood through art commissions like illustrations, murals, and commercial advertising. While there, Spohn also met fellow student Alexander Calder whom he befriended later during his Parisian stay. Ever the magnet for artists, Paris proved a crucial and far reaching experience for Spohn. He immersed himself fully in the cultural milieu of Paris in the '20s, and expressed his own ideas and interpretations in a variety of forms and media, well exemplified in the black and white images throughout the text. The significance of Calder and Spohn's friendship and dialogue is emphasized and brings to mind other associations, such as Braque and Picasso, Van Gogh and Gaugin or Seurat and Signac, whether amicable or not, because of their own development bearing on historic events. When he returned to San Francisco in 1927, he submitted works to annual art shows, designed and executed murals for Federal Art Projects (1935-42) and never ceased to experiment in forms of abstraction in sculpture, painting, banners and satirical "constructions-inventions", which succeeded in upsetting the "staidness" of most San Francisco society. However, this quest of freedom of expression for the artist was not lost on Douglas MacAgy, Director of the California School of Fine Arts. At his invitation, the 46-year-old Clay Spohn found himself teaching there, alongside Mark Rothko and Clifford Still to "lead students away from Social Realism and the old way of thinking.'' By 1948 the gap between East (N.Y.) and West (Calif.) was closing as Abstract Expressionism became a recognized "School" and Marcel Duchamp's anti-art was being transcended by Spohn's Assemblage-art, Pop Art and "Found Objects." These works culminated in his "Museum of the Unknown and Little Known Objects" (pp. 66-67), an exhibit for which he was assisted by his colleagues Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith. In five years' time the team of Still, Rothko, Spohn, David Park, Diebenkorn and others made The California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco world-renowned, but with the return of a more conservative board, all but Park and Diebenkorn returned to New York. "The most obvious difference that set Spohn apart from other abstractionists was his constant revolution whereby, as he perfected one mode of painting, he overturned it with another mode," observes Beasley. Whereas Still and Rothko (as well as others) had found their style or a "blind alley" as Spohn noted, he remained true to "his pursuit of pure personal expression" regardless of where it might lead him. This philosophy was reflected in his paintings of the Taos N.M. period and especially in the "pure paintings" from New York City, 1961-1965, such as "Dark Painting with Red and Yellow" (p. 10), "Blue Abstract" (p. 12) and "In the Bright Light of the Living Moment" (p. 16). By the early 1970s, however, he was obliged to request funding from the Rothko Foundation. Despite occasional sales and the "promise" of serious acknowledgement through exhibits and retrospectives, he remained largely misunderstood by the public and the art establishment. And he was now in failing health. In a final twist of irony, the New York Times did not find him worthy of inclusion in their obituary section. And yet, four days after his death, a notice was delivered announcing the approval of a grant awarded him by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Beasley concludes: "The frustration of the artist who tries and fails to communicate and educate cannot be fully appreciated by the rest of us." This sensitive portrait of Clay E. Spohn mirrors again the fate of artists such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Camille Claudell, and Canadian Emily Carr, who "follow their own direction" without compromise to the establishment of the day or the market, and present a challenge to contemporary society.

Reviewed by Maria Maryniak - The Downtowner, St Catharines, ON


Not A Serious Column 

by Stephen Beecroft, The Stoney Creek News

When David Beasley showed me his latest book, Understanding Modern Art; the Boundless Spirit of Clay Edgar Spohn, I was a little nonplussed.

At first, anyway.

David has written numerous books, from fiction to non-fiction, from history to art. Many of them have been reviewed in this column, which, despite its name, becomes quite serious at times. 

David's books, most of which can be found in the Hamilton Public Library, include Pagan Summer, Chocolate for the Poor, The Grand Conspiracy, Hamilton Romance, The Jenny, Through Paphlagonia with a Donkey and Who Really Invented the Automobile.


They're all different, but each of his books possesses the Beasley style, which is difficult to define.


David, who lives in Simcoe with his wife, Violet, uses words somewhat like a craftsman using tiles to build a mosaic. Carefully, each tile is installed. Only the correct tile will fit in a certain place. One might question the craftsman, and he might listen, but he alone knows what the completed mosaic will be like. David chooses his words carefully.

It is said that Charles Dickens, whose books were first serialized, wrote his long paragraphs because he was paid by the word.


Not David.

His paragraphs are lean and neat. No surplus words. No missing words. You couldn't condense one of David's books and you couldn't improve on it.

I'm pretty sure David wouldn't agree with this. After all, every writer feels he can improve on what he has written. We always say there are the words we intend to write, the words that actually go down on paper and then there are the words we wish we had written once the manuscript comes off the press.

But with David it's different. I think he's so careful with his craft the end result is as close to perfection as you'll ever get.

David doesn't necessarily choose popular subjects.

When he published an earlier book, Douglas MacAgy and the Foundations of Modern Art Curatorship, I struggled to understand it.


Then I talked to people like Estelle Baxter, past president of the Womens' Art Association, and she told me how to appreciate abstract art. "Don't even try to understand it, just enjoy it," she told me.

And I talked to Olga Ramsden, whose husband, Harry, is campaigning for a Saltfleet Arts Centre in Stoney Creek.

And she helped me understand a bit more about abstract art. So I wrote a column,"Beecroft and the art of understanding modern art", (News Oct. 29,1997), in which I tried to sensibly discuss the book.

Now David has produced another volume, Understanding Modern Art; the Boundless Spirit of Clay Edgar Spohn, [which] has involved a lot of hard work.

Many people haven't heard of Spohn, who was born in San Francisco in 1898 and died in 1977. I hadn't heard of him before reading David's book. But I now realize Spohn was a superb artist, probably one of the most influential artists of his generation.

Spohn wasn't a writer as such, but he kept numerous notebooks over the years and David, who was a friend of his, has used these notebooks throughout the work.

He has also included many illustrations, including 15 full colour pages of Spohn's paintings, plus an extensive index.

The volume . . . has helped me a bit more as I try to understand something of a great artist and abstract art in general. I have learned to enjoy abstract art even if I don't always understand it.

It's available in book stores. For further details, call Davus Publishing, 1-519-426-2077.