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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


A History of America Through Art

Framing America:
A Social History of American Art
By Frances K. Pohl
Thames & Hudson, 2002
560 pp., $75.00 hardcover
$56.25 paperback

To leaf through Frances Pohl’s Framing America: A Social History of American Art is to be struck, almost overwhelmed, by the richness and range of American culture. Here are intricately stitched samplers and befeathered Arapaho dresses, mission churches and New York skyscrapers, Georgia O’Keeffe’s lush florals and Charles Sheeler’s hard-edged “landscapes” of railroad tracks and factories. Here, too, are World War I posters, Hopi pottery, Audubon birds and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Framing America has 665 illustrations, 337 of them in color, and a text as vivid as its images. It’s not just a history of American art; it’s a history of America through art.

American art remains “fresh territory” to be explored, says Pohl, a member of Pomona’s art history faculty since 1985. Long ignored, or discounted as a sort of poor stepchild to European culture, our art has in recent decades begun eliciting a range of new perspectives and interpretations. Pohl found herself struggling to share all this new material with her students, and so in a sense, she says, Framing America had its genesis in frustration: “In the mid-1990s, I was up to five volumes of photocopied readings for my course in 20th-century North American art, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ There just wasn’t anything appropriate as an overview.” She set out to write one.

“What I’ve done in this book,” she continues, “is try to synthesize all of those really great books and articles that I’ve had time to read because of where I teach. I have small classes, I have students who are motivated to do a lot of the reading—even if they don’t necessarily do all of it!—and I have sabbaticals on a regular basis.” Pohl summarizes or quotes those books and articles often and at length, with references to a closely printed, 15-page bibliography at the back. She does so self-consciously, for both theoretical and practical reasons.

First, the theoretical: Pohl wants to suggest the multiplicity of possible perspectives—that is, to suggest that a piece of colonial needlework, a 19th-century marble, or a 20th-century abstract painting may have different, often conflicting, sets of meanings depending on who is looking at it. While many textbooks present their stories of a given image or movement as unproblematic, Pohl wants readers to recognize contingency and controversy.

“Some people will say that if your book creates too convincing a narrative, then it creates closure. It makes people think they don’t have to go any further. And I think I’ve written my book in a way that suggests that it’s not all here, that there is plenty more to do and other sources to go to and other topics to cover. This book just gives you some idea of how you can approach” the material. Pohl constructs frameworks—note the book’s title—that readers can use to see more clearly, as a frame helps focus one’s eye on a painting.

Second, the practical: Pohl has forged her book as a resource tool for faculty, students and others who simply aren’t able to study all the individual sources she pulls together. She envisions it in use not only in universities and liberal arts institutions like Pomona but also in community and state colleges, where faculty may teach four or more courses a semester and have little time to prepare classes, much less do the kind of research reflected here.

Why this concern with the practical? Pohl attributes it to her background. Born in Kimberly, British Columbia, a mining town on the slopes of the Rockies, she grew up in a working-class family with German and Italian roots. Her immigrant father worked in mining and construction, and Pohl saw labor unrest as well as ethnic hierarchy—“if you had a Polish or Italian last name you were very unlikely to rise into the managerial ranks”—at first hand. Encouraged by a high school English teacher, she went on to the University of British Columbia and then, after her first year, took a nine-month trip through Europe, Africa and the Middle East. If she had known then what she knows now, Pohl says, she would never have made the trip (“I almost died, stuck out in the middle of nowhere in the Sahara desert with a hole in the engine of the Volkswagen van”). Fortunately, she did make the trip, as it ignited an interest in art and art history. She returned to UBC and then came down to UCLA to study art history, pausing briefly along the way to consider careers in law, business, architecture and commercial art. (Framing America seems to mirror this eclecticism of interests, considering as it does everything from sculpture to stock certificates, paintings to pueblo architecture.)

But entering a field like art history made Pohl uneasy. “When you come out of a family that has jobs rather than professions, they want to see a practical outcome. It’s not that I didn’t fully value academic work but that I had to work hard at making it relevant. It wasn’t enough to talk about beautiful images or to analyze their formal qualities or philosophical implications. I had to see what the practical implications were, how images fit into the world.” Today, she often tells her students that this discomfort with art history has made her a better art historian. “I am always thinking, ‘Well, okay, how can I make it meaningful? How can I make art history relevant? How can I work on topics that somehow engage with where I came from?’”

Pohl did her first major work on Ben Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti series, which resonated deeply with her experience of class tension in Kimberly. In Framing America as in that work, she emphasizes art as part of a social network, a network of power relations, conflict over resources and struggles to define personal or group identity. Art history surveys don’t often cover as much history, or examine the relations between art and history as closely, as hers does. Yet she also analyzes images closely, careful not to lose sight of the works themselves.

Take her discussion of Winslow Homer’s Prisoners from the Front (1866). This well-known painting depicts three defeated Confederate soldiers facing a Union officer, with two other Union soldiers standing guard. Pohl first lays out the historical background, Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South, and by way of context notes that contemporary painting reflected a strong interest in the war and its aftermath, including its significance for African Americans. She outlines the conventions of such compositions and how Homer breaks with them: normally the losers kneel or bow, but these stand upright, level with the victors. She also discusses contemporary reception of the painting: critics puzzled over its genre and meaning, with some interpreting it as a celebration of “brotherly feeling” and others as a commentary on the war’s causes and outcome (pp. 211-13). And then Pohl introduces a fresh interpretation, one inspired in fact by her experience in a Pomona classroom.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s she was lecturing on this painting when a student suddenly asked, “Is that soldier behind the Confederate prisoners black?” Neither Pohl herself nor any other critic, so far as she knew, had considered the possibility. Researching the painting, she learned that Homer had added this dark-skinned figure at a relatively late stage of composition and had scraped off, then repainted, the face at least once. The figure remains ill defined, almost faceless. Pohl surmises that “Homer’s support for the abolitionist cause and increased awareness of the contributions of African Americans to the war effort . . . may well have prompted him to include a reference to black soldiers, and thus to slavery, in his symbolic commentary on the Civil War.” At the same time, “awareness of the potential resistance of critics, and the public in general, to the inclusion of a black soldier may have caused him to back away from presenting a fully realized figure.” She notes too that this figure may represent “those who had the most to lose as a result of the ‘brotherly’ negotiations between North and South [to dismantle Reconstruction and African Americans’ newly won rights] that had begun even as the paint dried on Homer’s canvas” (pp. 213-14).

Analysis of this depth, breadth and originality is not unique; Pohl treats dozens of works in the same way. Sophisticated and complex, the narrative nonetheless reads easily even if one knows little about art history. “There’s a conscious attempt to make what I write accessible to, if not my parents specifically, then the people in Kimberly,” Pohl says.

Having covered American art from the Aztecs to the Abstract Expressionists and beyond, where will Pohl go from here? She insists at first that she wants to go nowhere—“I just want to rest!”—but her seemingly inexhaustible energy soon bubbles to the surface. (As a former colleague of Pohl’s I can attest to that energy. “Good morning,” she’d say brightly as she strode into the Dean’s Office, where she served as associate dean of the College for three years. “I finished the 1930s at about 2 a.m. last night.” Or “Well, this weekend I mowed the lawn, finished painting the living room, and wrote another 12 pages.”) She is currently organizing a College museum exhibit on the work of Ben Shahn and Italian artist Mirella Bentivoglio. Titled “Love and Joy about Letters,” it will focus on their mutual interest in the intersection of image with text. She also hopes to write about art and labor unions, a topic that has gripped her imagination for more than a decade. Finally, Pohl admits to having already begun compiling notes for a first revision of Framing America. “This book is going to be with me the rest of my life,” she says. “It will be my child, and it will grow.”

—Kris Fossum '76 is Assistant to the
Associate Dean of the College at Pomona College.

Photo by Michael Larsen '89 and Tracy Talbert