A Personal Canon: Anthony Alofsin on Six Influential Texts
The books I have selected represent works that have figured into my thinking and writing for my scholarly publications. Obviously, some are acknowledgements to my teachers who taught as much by example as by text. Others just called for admiration. This selection comes from one shelf of my library while other shelves hold a broad range of art books, fiction, poetry, and plays that are close to my heart. Picking among them was like choosing your favorite child, a task destined to reap bad Karma. What gets left out are books I’m consuming now during the pandemic, and some of them are candidates for their own canon, including Emily Wilson’s brilliant translations of Greek plays. If the only safe place becomes a desert island, the mix could change but for now I offer this group of six.
Howard Hibbard, Bernini (1965)
Hibbard was my mentor in art history at Columbia University, and had he not died prematurely in 1984 I may well have followed him into the field of Baroque art. I shall always remember the day he explained in a graduate seminar the success of his book on Bernini: ‘When I began the book, I knew nothing about Bernini’s sculpture,’ he said, ‘so I had to open my eyes and look and learn everything I could.’ He was a passionate advocate for confronting a work of art with all one’s senses, looking deep and long, not just at the center but at the edges and seams. According to Hibbard the experience was humbling and awe-inspiring; and real art historians are interested not just in their own niche, but the whole history of art. Furthermore, his visual acuity matched the rigor of his writing: direct, unpretentious, and without frills. Every time I pick up my worn copy of Bernini, I think how lucky I was to have been one of his last students.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry (1973)
Bloom’s fundamental study came to me at the exact right moment as I was exploring the phenomenon of artistic influence. A cornerstone of art historical rhetoric, influence meant that if A looks like B, then B has influenced A. This practice—the more rhapsodically expressed, the better—struck me as unscientific. I had been studying early seventeenth-century editions of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a collection of symbols and emblems for artists, and was intrigued at how changes in the editions of the books influenced artistic production over the centuries. This paralleled my own interest in reception theory, and particularly in the work of Hans Jauss, which suggested that looking at the critical reception of a work of literature could be indexical of its social meaning. That realization led me to Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and how literary figures deny the impact of their forebears and those most close to them. When I began looking under the rubric of reception theory at the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth folios—touted by art historians as major and immediate—Bloom’s ideas fit perfectly. Not only did the trope of visual similitude fall apart when scrutinized with documentary evidence, but Wright’s defensive behavior emerged as the kind of denial that Bloom had articulated. His book, therefore, provided a psychological mechanism that held not only for poetry but more broadly for the visual arts generally. I once asked George Kubler at Yale, whose Shape of Time I admired, how could one culture influence another if neither had any physical contact with another. He stared at me for a while and said, ‘Well, if you must have an answer, there might be some Jungian explanation.’ Maybe so, I thought. In any case I saw influence as problematized and it became, along with reception theory, a cornerstone for my major books.
Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd edition (1992)
Hobsbawm’s major works on empire and the invention of nationalism provided me with a sharp lens to examine the complexities of national identity. His third in the series on the History of Civilization, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, was particularly relevant for my book, When Buildings Speak: The Architecture of the Late Austro-Hungarian Empire and Its Aftermath. The Austro-Hungarian empire existed as a tense amalgam of political, social, and cultural conflicts layered with multiple visual and verbal languages. Seeing this complexity through Hobsbawm helped me to define historical interaction not as a linear sequence of events and influences, but rather and far more incisively as a web of interconnections with intensity focused on points of intersection akin to the nodes or knots of a net. Those were the places where institutions collided and an individual could be at once a Jew, an artist, a Hungarian, a nationalist, a modernist, and a mythographer. Hobsbawm’s ideas gave me the framework to locate the invention of national identities, and, particularly, the role language itself played in constituting identity. As with the other books in my small canon, I appreciated Hobsbawm’s good writing—and his role as a public intellectual.
Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America (2012)
In this conclusion of his studies on pre-Revolutionary America, Bailyn’s Barbarous Years impressed me with its distillation of a vast range of primary and secondary sources, all of which the author condensed or summarized in flowing prose. The book reveals the layering, complication, and multiple dimensions of settling the Eastern seaboard described in a subtitle as a “conflict of civilizations” during a period of 1600-1675. In doing so it demonstrates the inherent conflictual and violent roots of America’s history. Reading Bailyn’s work reminds me of the historian’s obligations to challenge established thought, to absorb all sources with an open mind, and to weave a net that catches readers with grace.
Eduard F. Sekler, Joseph Hoffmann: The Architectural Work (1985)
A classic version of a monograph and Werkverzeichnis, Sekler spent decades assessing the architectural career of Joseph Hoffmann, a major figure in the Vienna Secession. Though it lacks a critical eye that could have situated Hoffmann as a problematic figure in architecture’s Modern Movement, the book elevated him from his role as co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte and as a designer to that of a master of the architectural ensemble. The volume remains a basic reference for a period that constituted the final aesthetic apogee of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Long out of print, the book deserves updating and a second edition.
Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (1932)
The first edition of Wright’s autobiography resonates as the freshest account of his life and work. Typical for him, in later editions he expanded the text to the point of bloating; but in the first version, begun under duress in 1926, Wright reveals himself personally in a way that attracted not only broad critical acclaim but drew young people to him. The architect comes off as vulnerable, honest, and driven, but the book is also elliptical, occasionally inaccurate, and contains surprisingly little about his architecture. Nevertheless, it remains a benchmark to which historians and biographers must refer. Nothing has replaced it and without the Autobiography our understanding of Wright would be diminished.
Anthony Alofsin is the Roland Gommel Roessner Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He is the author of Wright and New York: The Making of America’s Architect. Click here to read an excerpt from the book, which is now available in paperback.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2012.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 1973.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. New York, New York: Penguin Books. 1965.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd edition. Cambridge, England and New York, New York: Cambridge University Press. 1992.
Sekler, Eduard F. Joseph Hoffmann: The Architectural Work. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1985.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography. New York and London: Longman Green, 1932.