Watercolors to Warhol

One of the most perceptive commentators on American culture isn't a native, though he has lived among us for nearly three decades. Robert Hughes, born in Australia in 1938, came here in 1970; as Time magazine's art critic, he's been a trenchant, truculent, opinionated, often-admired and sometimes infuriating observer of the scene. He has never become a citizen. "We resident aliens -- the very term suggests a small Martian colony -- have therefore missed out on one of the core American experiences, that of becoming someone else: becoming American, starting over, leaving behind what you once were," he writes in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (Knopf, $39.95). "Nearly everyone in America bears the marks of this in his or her conscious life, and carries traces of it deep in ancestral lore and recollection." (Note, as Hughes does, that he's talking about the immigrant American experience; he excepts native cultures from his argument.)

This push-pull of origins, felt in our very souls, Hughes argues in this 600-page book, has from the very beginning of our national history translated into the images we create. "No Europeans felt about the Old in quite the same way Americans came to, and none believed as intensely in the New. Both are massively present in the story of American art, a story that begins weakly and derivatively in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and acquires such seemingly irrefutable power by the end of the twentieth. In this way, the visual culture of America, oscillating between dependence and invention, tells a part of the American story."

Take a watercolor from 1564 done by Jacques Le Moyne, a cartographer who accompanied a French Huguenot settlement expedition in Florida. The oldest surviving example of artwork executed by a European in the New World, it depicts the expedition's chief "being welcomed to Florida by a group of lily-white Indians . . . a votive plinth bearing the three heraldic lilies of France is surrounded by the products of native husbandry: gourds, fruit, and the all-important but (to a Frenchman) completely novel Indian corn." Here's evidence that, as early as the 1560s, newly American artists were manipulating images of race and symbols of Old and New. The Spanish in nearby St. Augustine wiped out the settlement just a year after its founding, but Le Moyne's watercolor endured.

American Visions came out of an eight-part TV series Hughes did a while back; it shares the series's chronological approach but greatly expands on its material. Highboys and Palladian houses turn up alongside the canvases of Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley in a chapter on the young nation, "The Republic of Virtue"; photos of the Brooklyn Bridge and prefab iron-front buildings partner Thomas Eakins's paintings of skulling on the Schuylkill in "The Gritty Cities."

Hughes is a man of strong opinions and tastes, and he's not afraid to admit it; you may not agree with his judgments, but often they're persuasive and wryly funny. Of Walter De Maria's 1977 installation "Earth Room" -- the second floor of a loft building in New York, covered by the artist with 125 tons of "rich, chocolate-brown soil" -- Hughes writes, it "is still there, sedulously maintained and viewed by perhaps fifty people a week. It is said that reproduction does not do it justice, but perhaps neither does an actual visit. This odd conceptual icon enshrines a moment when Minimalist and Conceptualist artists alike were hoping to contradict the art market, which they tended to view as inherently wicked; certainly it's hard to imagine all that soil being trucked up to Sotheby's, and presumably all offers from indoor marijuana growers will continue to be refused."

As you may gather from that quote, Hughes harbors a conservatism and a disbelief in the American notion of continuous progress; in that, he's distinctly unpatriotic. At book's end, pointing out that America has lasted long enough to be "not new but old," he writes, "the smaller sphere of the visual arts is equally fatigued, and its model of progress -- the vanguard myth -- seems played out, hardly even a shell or a parody of its former self. This, however, only seems unnatural or disappointing to those whose expectations have been formed by vanguardism. Cultures do decay; and the visual culture of American modernism, once so strong, buoyant, and inventive, and now so harassed by its own sense of defeated expectations, may be no exception to that fact."

Hunting Wabbits

If Robert Hughes sounds much too serious for these Y2K times, Chuck Jones offers up a lighter vein of artistic observation in Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (Farrar Straus Giroux, $20). Jones, as kids of all ages know, helped create and directed the adventures of some of Saturday morning's favorite zanies, including Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin Martian, the ever-amorous Pepe Le Pew and poor loony Daffy Duck, always getting his bill shot off by Elmer Fudd ("Duck season!" "Rabbit season!" "Duck season!").

Jones grew up in Spokane and went to art school at Chouinard in Los Angeles, graduating auspiciously during the Depression. He was a young man with a plan: "I would become an easel painter, consumptive and unrecognized, dying picturesquely at some incredible old age like thirty-seven, in a wonderfully shabby Paris garret with my painfully completed masterpiece on the easel beside me, a sort of male Camille." After a brief stint as a janitor, Jones was rescued by fate: An old schoolmate got him a job at Warner Bros. studio. Cartoon history would never be the same. "We were not allowed to preview our films, nor thankfully were there any such idiocies as demographics or Nielsen ratings . . . we made pictures for ourselves, believing with childlike innocence that if we laughed at and with each other, others perhaps would follow."

As an animator and director, Jones has lived by one cardinal rule: "Character always first, before the physical representation. Just as it is with all living beings, including human beings. We are not what we look like. We are not even what we sound like. We are how we move; in other words, our personalities." (Jones claims to have learned this from his cat, Johnson, who showed him that "it is the individual, the oddity, the peculiarity that counts.")

"As the twentieth century whips around its final lap, we can start contemplating how annoying the next century is going to be," writes "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, the Chuck Jones of his generation, in his preface to this book. Good thing we'll have Bugs et al. to keep us laughing.

Picture This

Somewhere between the highbrow (Hughes) and the high-lowbrow (Jones) fall the pictures in The Art of National Geographic: A Century of Illustration, by Alice A. Carter, foreword by Stephen Jay Gould (National Geographic, $50). Famous for its photography, National Geographic magazine has had to turn, many a time, to artists to capture the unphotographed or unphotographable: an archaeopteryx launching itself from a branch 150 million years ago; market life in the West African city of Jenne-jeno circa 1,000 A.D.; a Spanish conquistador, drawn sword in hand, bursting onto the New World; the apocalyptic explosion of the Mont Pelee volcano on the island of Martinique on May 8, 1902, in which some 30,000 people perished.

Carter, a professor of art and design at San Jose State University, breaks down this hundred years' survey into sensible categories: paleontology and anthropology, exploration and discovery, natural history, conflict and chaos ("decisive historical moments"), the universe and world cultures. Though the historical recreations are impressive (and, with the likes of N.C. Wyeth contributing, often achieve high artistic standards), the loveliest illustrations, for my money, turn up in the natural history section. Barron Storey's rendering of "Layers of Life in the African Rain Forest," for a January 1983 story, crawls with parrots and monkeys and bird-size beetles and butterflies; while Mary E. Eaton's richly colored botanical watercolors, painted in the teens and '20s, have an Audubonesque precision and grace to them.

Also Noted

There isn't space here to discuss them fully, but bear in mind a couple of other recent titles of interest to lovers of American art. Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings From the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948, edited by Harry L. Katz (Library of Congress, $19.95), accompanies an exhibit at the Library scheduled to run through Jan. 29; it's a graphic documentary of social unrest, workers, capitalists and other icons of the first 50 years of this turbulent century. Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer, by Michael Kammen (Univ. of North Carolina, $24.95; hardcover, $49.95) surveys the work of a prominent social realist, Southern-born, a white man who took as his main subject the lives of African Americans and portrayed them without romanticizing or caricaturing. Gwathmey stressed the universal. "I'm interested in the human figure and in the human condition," he said. "I don't feel like a moralist at all. I feel like an observer."

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@washpost.com.