Horace Pippin, American Modern

Yale Univ. Feb. 2020. 264p. ISBN 9780300243307. $50. FINE ARTS
The grandson of slaves, Horace Pippin (1888–1946) was a World War I veteran lacking formal art training who began painting after age 40. “Discovered” by N.C. Wyeth in a small Pennsylvania gallery, he was included in a show of “modern primitives” at MoMA in New York and quickly became a prolific art star, “an American answer to Henri Rousseau.” He pushed his brush with a right hand crippled by bullets, and said “I think my pictures out with my brain, and then I tell my heart to go ahead.” His chromatically off-kilter, emotionally remote paintings are weighted with an uncanniness expressed through thick impasto. Modernist culture-vultures propelled his visibility into popular magazines. Portraits, and vaguely nostalgic plantation tableaux are mixed with brutal scenes of slaves being whipped and “John Brown Going to His Hanging”—memories just beyond reach for most mid-20th-century audiences. Art historian Monahan grapples with how to characterize this singular man, avoiding loaded vocabulary such as naïve or primitive in favor of self-taught and autodidact. It’s a complex story to tell; occasional lapses into academese mar the book’s readability.
VERDICT This comprehensive study of Pippin absorbs previous scholarship but is perhaps the most thorough and inclusive analysis of a luminary and true original, briefly at center stage.
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