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Stanford Report, March 29, 2000

Faculty Profile: American modernism as redefined by Wanda Corn

She was enthroned on a grand chair in her adobe studio on the secluded ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Known for her still lifes of bleached desert bones and skulls, Georgia O'Keeffe had an equally legendary reputation as a remote artist-priestess.

Wanda Corn, perched on a small stool at the foot of the icon, could hear the ticking of a nearby clock. She had been granted a 30-minute interview but it was stretching into an hour.

Suddenly O'Keeffe stood up, signaling that the questioning had come to an end. As they walked to the door together, the 93-year-old artist nudged Corn.

Wanda Corn peers from a window in her office at the Palo Alto home she and her husband, Joe Corn, bought from painter Sam Francis. The artist had converted the former auto body shop into loft-style living space with a studio when the Corns bought the property.

Photos: L.A. Cicero

"She had a twinkle in her eye," Corn recalls. "And she said to me, 'You didn't learn anything today that you didn't know before, did you?'"

Corn had read everything she could about O'Keeffe and had to agree that she hadn't heard anything new or startling.

"But I said to her, 'You know what? It's all in the teller, and listening to you make choices about which stories to tell me and what to emphasize has made all the difference.'"

As a nationally recognized historian of American art and something of a storyteller herself, Corn knows a definitive anecdote when she hears one. For decades she has been listening to and decoding the artistic and cultural cross-currents that circled in and out of early 20th-century American art, and she offers up the findings of her research and teaching in a provocative new book.

Published by the University of California Press, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, takes its title from O'Keeffe, who liked to say that everyone in the 1920s was chasing after "the Great American Thing." Relying on 300 full-color illustrations to help make her points, Corn argues that after World War I artists in New York and Paris began to agitate for a new national art, one that was recognizably modern and American. In her revisionist history, Corn explores how the "moderns," as she calls them, began to claim the skyscrapers, billboards, brand-name products, factories, jazz, advertisements and even plumbing fixtures of the 1920s as identifiers of the new "Americanness."

Ocean liners were making transatlantic travel more comfortable and accessible in that era, and Corn writes that "this book demonstrates the almost balletic intercontinental dance of artists' sailing in and out of the ports of Le Havre and New York, heading from one continent to the other, that makes the period so fascinating and distinguishes it from any time before or after."

When she interviewed O'Keeffe in 1980, Corn was panning for the kinds of sparkling nuggets that illuminate her portraits of six influential artists -- Marcel Duchamp, Gerald Murphy, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and O'Keeffe -- whose careers provide the organizational structure for The Great American Thing. Corn launches each chapter with a close look at a single work by one of the artists, and that piece becomes the central hub for discussions of cultural dynamics that radiate in and out like spokes on a spinning wheel.

A '24/7' professor, Corn always makes time for her duties as chair of the Panel on Outdoor Art.

"It's a book about discourses, as opposed to single artists," Corn says. "A discourse at any given time has many different proponents and they may not all be talking to one another, or even know of one another, but they are all addressing a common set of cultural issues and problems."

Given those issues, it's not surprising that The Great American Thing was years in the writing.

"I drafted and redrafted, trying to get to a point where I was happy with the complexity of thought and also happy with the simplicity of expression," Corn says. "I work very hard at what I do, and it isn't as if it came spontaneously to me."

Corn has been situating American art on the map with the great works of Europe since the 1960s, when she put herself through graduate school at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts by working for Gallery Passport. As a paid tour guide, she helped visitors understand abstract and pop art exhibitions by force of her analysis and contagious enthusiasm, and those qualities continue to attract the admiration of scholars in the field.

"Wanda has led a generation of American scholars into serious and important research on American art," says Elizabeth Turner, curator for early 20th-century art at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. "She is, quite simply, my hero, and her book is a definitive study of what it means to be American. I think it will be important in classrooms and salons for a long time to come."

Corn cruises through East Coast museums as often as she can, to keep up with important new shows. One of the drawbacks of living in California, she says, is "how far we are from the Amtrak art line, which goes from Washington to Boston."

Continental divide notwithstanding, Bryan Wolf, chair of the American studies program at Yale, describes Corn as a "national resource."

"Over the past 20 years, there have been two central figures in American art history -- Jules Prown at Yale on the East Coast, who was 'Mr. American Art History,' and Wanda Corn at Stanford on the West Coast, who is 'Ms. American Art History,'" Wolf says. "Wanda has become a central senior figure in ways that are far more extensive than her scholarship and publishing. In fact, she has been the teacher, the mentor, the organizer."

Corn came to Stanford in 1980 as the university's first full-time appointment in the history of American art. By Fall Quarter 1989, she was wearing two hats -- as head of the art department and as acting director of the Stanford Museum. When the Loma Prieta earthquake rumbled across the campus and shut down the museum, Corn donned a third -- hard -- hat and took charge of developing a feasibility study for a renovated museum and searching for a permanent director.

"Having Wanda in place, who was known to the staff and administration and who was highly respected and well liked, was so important in the work that followed over the next two years," says Mona Duggan, associate director for external relations at the Cantor Arts Center. "She was able to gather the support needed to ensure that the university approved moving ahead with rebuilding the museum and with the director's search."

Corn also served a term as director of the Humanities Center, where she oversaw the restoration of the annex and garden.

"With no offense to other past directors, Wanda wins hands-down the award for 'Best Dressed Director,'" says Susan Sebbard, administrator of fellowships and stewardship at the Humanities Center. "Her mix of color, stripes and whimsy in clothing and jewelry was a daily delight. And her ability to blend serious, down-to-earth attention to the business at hand with compassion and humor lifted everyone around her."

A scholar of late 19th- and early 20th-century painting and photography, Corn currently is interim chair of the Department of Art and Art History, where a sign on her desk, a gift from a friend, confirms she is "A Chair Called Wanda." She has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Museum of American Art, and she was the first art historian appointed to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Corn also has been a Regents Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, served two terms as director of the College Art Association and been a commissioner of the National Museum of American Art. During the 1984-85 academic year, she criss-crossed the country, teaching on eight different campuses as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar.

Corn has curated numerous exhibitions at Bay Area and national museums, and authored books and catalogs that include The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1890-1910, The Art of Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. As a result of organizing several different Grant Wood exhibitions, Corn became friends with the artist's sister, who gave her a copy of the outfit in which she had posed for American Gothic. Corn and her husband, Joe, a senior lecturer in history, often turn up at parties dressed as the dour Midwestern couple, and Joe has even constructed a collapsible Masonite pitchfork that he can pack in his suitcase and take on travel-study trips for the Stanford Alumni Association.

In 1998 Wanda Corn received the Richard W. Lyman Award for faculty volunteer service from the Alumni Association, which hailed "the boldness, wit and clarity she serves up from the podium as celebrant, interpreter and evangelist for her field, and as a guide to students of all ages and perspectives."

Those who have taken Corn's popular "Transatlantic Modernism" class have their own favorite memories of the salon that closes that course. Held at the Corns' Palo Alto home, a former auto-body shop that's been reborn as a 6,000-square-foot SoHo artist's loft space, the soiree is conducted by Gertrude Stein herself, a.k.a. Corn in brown corduroy and commanding brooch.

Students dress as characters from Stein's artistic world -- Picasso, Matisse, the writer Carl Van Vechten or the painter Florine Stettheimer -- and serve up futurist hors d'oeuvres of whipped egg whites with yolks floating in the middle. To be admitted to the salon, students must come with modernist portraits created for the occasion. One year a plunger was awarded "In Advance of a Broken Toilet" for a particularly witty portrait of Duchamp.

Not coincidentally, the first chapter of Corn's new book opens with a discussion of a controversial Duchamp work -- Fountain, a porcelain urinal the artist submitted in 1917 for installation at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists.

"Fountain is so 'out there' as a work of art, and Duchamp has to be one of the most heavily written about artists," Corn says. "I was worried that someone might say, 'My god, not another essay on the urinal! What more can there be to say?'"

The new perspective Corn brought to Duchamp's work was to suggest that he was a modern-day Tocqueville, continuing the tradition of French visitors to America who have reported on their travels in and impressions of the upstart nation. Writing about the artist's "wit and intellectual skepticism," Corn notes: "Duchamp's iconoclasm in making Fountain, I want to suggest, was not just that of a jester and conceptualist, but also that of a teacher."

Ellen Todd, an associate professor of art history at George Mason University, likens Corn's influence as a teacher to an energizing force field. Todd was a graduate student at Stanford developing a dissertation topic on Picasso the year Corn arrived.

"The real 'aha' for me was the social history of art that Wanda introduced me to," says Todd, who also teaches women's studies and cultural studies. "After a 10-week [course], I defected from Picasso to Reginald Marsh and his urban cohorts, and to a social/feminist history of art. It was the best thing I ever did in my intellectual career."

Corn's career had taken a similar flip the year she left Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she had been majoring in history, to study abroad. At the University of London she enrolled in University College, the Slade School of Art and then Birkbeck College, where she took up art history and studied with Nikolaus Pevsner, a renowned scholar of medieval cathedrals.

"I had grown up next door to the Congregational church where my father was the minister, so I was very comfortable in churches," Corn recalls. "In England I was surrounded by all these marvelous cathedrals, and I went with Pevsner on field trips to take measurements and to try to discover the little seams that marked the places where one work period stopped and another picked up. He was an inspiration to me, and I fell in love with things medieval and thought that would be what I would spend my life doing."

In Paris the following year, Corn worked as an au pair for a family with four children to absorb the French she would need for additional studies. She also used the time to hitchhike back and forth across the continent.

"Frankly, those were my Wanderjahre [journeyman years] and I wanted to see and do all I could. My family was such that once you had made a long journey like that -- man, you worked it for all you could. I wouldn't have dreamed of making a phone call home because of the expense, so for two years I was on my own and made a lot of good friends and learned very domestic French."

When Corn returned to the States to finish her undergraduate degree at New York University, Joe was waiting for her. They had met at Bates and corresponded regularly while she was away.

The couple were married within a year and Joe taught at a prep school in Westchester County while Wanda commuted by train to graduate school.

Then along came Erastus Salisbury Field.

Corn's parents had restored a parsonage in Westerfield that dated from 1832, and in the course of furnishing it with period pieces, they had found two anonymous paintings. A professor from Amherst College spotted the portraits on a spring house tour and identified them as the work of Field, a 19th-century itinerant artist who had worked up and down the Connecticut River valley.

The first exhibition of Field's work was held at the Connecticut Historical Society while Corn was attending the Institute of Fine Arts.

"It was fascinating," she recalls of her experience in the gallery that day. "Here was an unknown hand to which a whole career could now be ascribed because people had used skills of connoisseurship and historical research.

"As a side interest, I began to read in American art, and before I knew it, it seemed more relevant to my life and nowhere near as worked-over as medieval art. And a number of us at school began to think that American art was a very interesting subset of European art."

When Joe Corn was accepted to the doctoral program in history at the University of California-Berkeley, the couple headed West. Wanda taught first at Cal and then spent 10 years at Mills College, where she taught courses in European and American art and photography. In 1980 she and Joe were recruited to Stanford.

"Here I was allowed to really indulge and specialize," Wanda says. "I was thrilled to be given an opportunity to actually create a program in American art."

When she is asked about the influence of her own professors, Corn says that one former instructor liked to muse about how Parisian cubism was disseminated and absorbed by other artists. Art historians agree that cubism was birthed in the studios of Picasso and Braque, but her professor wanted to know how it got to England, Germany and America -- and why it looked a bit different in each of those countries.

"Posing the question that way, suggesting there was an American cubism, as opposed to a French cubism, made me wonder what made it American," Corn says. "I wasn't satisfied with the answer I got then -- that Americans were pragmatic, hard-nosed, not very philosophical people, so their cubism was more realist and harder edged. I found that answer weird, because I knew many Americans who wouldn't fit those definitions, and it became an interesting problem to me."

To illustrate her evolving concept of the transatlantic defining of Americanness in the early 20th century, Corn takes a piece of paper and draws a series of overlapping circles on it.

"We can talk about those who thought there were indigenous American forms of advertising and those who argued for similar American qualities in local factory design," she says, tracing the circles. "And then, over here, you have artists beginning to talk to one another about what America ought to look like in its modern art."

Corn often finds answers to the questions that animate her scholarly interest in work outside the academy. For the past eight years, she has served as a member of the advisory board of the Georgia O'Keeffe Catalogue Raisonné, a two-volume compilation of every known work by the artist that was published last fall by Yale University Press. Corn was invited to give a lecture to patrons of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor to open "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things," a traveling exhibition that will be on view through May 14. She also will talk about O'Keeffe's work at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6, in Annenberg Auditorium.

Corn suggested at the Legion of Honor that in addition to being a member of the first generation of modernists, O'Keeffe was a teacher in a profound way. As she showed slides of the artist's serial paintings of Penitente crosses, Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers and clam shells, Corn argued that O'Keeffe was trying to teach viewers how a simple motif can be transformed through modernist rhetoric.

"She's giving you the gift of watching a modern artist's mind at work," Corn said. "It's never the motif she wants us to see. What she's most interested in showing us is how the artist can look at an ordinary door time and again and constantly reinvent it and transform it in paint.

"She's showing us that America could never be whole without its artists -- its special, insightful seers." SR

Wanda Corn in her Palo Alto home.