Recently returning to the United States after a decade living abroad, I realized I had allowed certain facts about the place to slip my memory. Some of them came back to me with full force last summer, watching what I could bear of the two big presidential nominating conventions. It came as a shock to be reminded how unreal the rest of the world becomes in the rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats alike. Each speaker had a similar tale to tell of how a mother, a grandfather or some other forebear had made his or her way, despite untold hazards and nearly insuperable difficulties, from some inhospitable foreign land—Italy, Cuba, Mexico, wherever—to find a new life, get ahead and gain that holy grail, a small business, in the greatest country on earth. If it was a Republican, great-grandpa had done it by dint of sheer personal pluck and determination; for Democrats, this heartwarming success had been achieved with a helping hand from a benevolent government, which may have been big but, for heaven’s sake, never too big. Likewise in the summations at the end of the candidates’ final tv debates, the incumbent spoke as the representative of ‘the one indispensable nation’, which his opponent then declared to be ‘the hope of the earth’. The rest of the world featured just as a place from which to escape.

American exceptionalism may not be very evident on Main Street, where upward mobility is currently in short supply, or on Wall Street, where the fabled 1 per cent understands its fortunes to be more deeply entwined with those of its cousins in the City of London or Hong Kong, and its accounts in the Cayman Islands, than with those of lesser co-nationals. But the question of the nation—its character, its fractures—may still hold some traction in art. Anne Middleton Wagner offers her new collection of essays, A House Divided: American Art since 1955, as an exploration of ‘the character of art in the United States’ during the past half-century of American world dominance, and therefore in a culture ‘more or less synonymous’ with export and empire. ‘What has it been like’, she asks, ‘to experience us hegemony from the inside, as shaping the fundamental patterns of artistic production, to say nothing of the fabric of everyday life?’ Were painting and sculpture eager participants in the new balance of power—or, if they were capable of providing ‘some space apart’ from empire, what did it offer: ‘Dissent? Individuality? For whom?’ Were dreams of freedom and autonomy effectively particularized, in this deeply divided country—or did ‘the true subject of American art in its heyday stem from the plight of belonging—the inescapable pull of nation and flag?’ Wagner’s title, with its sideways glance at Lincoln—‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’—inevitably evokes nationhood under stress; in her hands that ancient metaphor, state as household, gains force, comes alive again. ‘Why should we believe that America’s powers and persuasions have been exercised only abroad, or in the public realm?’ Rather, she will attend to matters domestic, in both senses of the word.

The interface of art and nation, aesthetic and empire, are not new themes for Wagner, although she had initially addressed them in the more delimited, graspable context of the Old World. Her first book was set in France: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: Sculptor of the Second Empire, published in 1986, offered a fine-grained account of an individual artist’s biography interwoven with the institutional frameworks of the 1850s and 60s. It succeeded in showing Carpeaux as a representative figure in both senses of the word: typical and definitive, thereby justifying Wagner’s decision to omit the indefinite article from her subtitle; Carpeaux was not merely a sculptor of the Second Empire but, implicitly, the sculptor, who had created ‘a body of work perfectly suited to contemporary life’ and, in so doing, had ‘resuscitated the art of sculpture’ in France. A decade later, with Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O’Keeffe (1996), Wagner moved to the 20th-century Anglophone world. Here she engaged with the representational role of the artist from a different perspective, by showing three distinct approaches to the conundrum of inventing and embodying the role of woman artist—of ‘solving an unknown factor of art and an unknown factor of life’, as Eva Hesse once put it. In 2005, with Mother Stone: The Vitality of Modern British Sculpture, she showed how the supposedly personal, even biological themes of pregnancy and maternity became central public concerns for sculpture, through the work of Epstein, Moore and Hepworth.

A House Divided consists of eleven studies of individual artists, with a final chapter more broadly devoted to performance and video, circa 1970. The selection itself illuminates the extent to which the problem of the nation and its iconography has been a central artistic concern: Jasper Johns’s painstaking recreations/deconstructions of the American flag from shreds of cloth and newsprint dipped in coloured wax, in the mid-50s; Red Race Riot (1963), Andy Warhol’s silkscreened news photos of a National Guard dog attacking a black civil-rights protestor—Wagner makes an ingenious case for seeing him as a ‘history painter’; Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974), the chainsaw-bisected American home; the Vietnam War Memorial (1982) designed by the 21-year-old Chinese-American student, Maya Lin; from the 1990s, Kara Walker’s life-size cut-paper silhouettes, as representations of race. Other studies—of David Smith, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin—are more loosely grouped under the heading, ‘A Place of Safety’, referring not just to the ‘internal exile’ of the artist’s studio, though this features at least as much as does gallery space in these essays, but to Clement Greenberg’s argument in ‘The Situation at the Moment’ (1948) that the strength of American painting lay in the adverse conditions of American culture: ‘isolation, or rather the alienation that is its cause’—‘the experience of this true reality is indispensable to any ambitious art’.

This structuring division aims to suggest two different strategies, both speaking, Wagner argues, to the problem of the contemporary American artist’s ‘home’—‘the way he or she, as a citizen of empire, imagines the locus and scope of artistic work’. She distinguishes between those whose work imagines ‘seamless belonging to the nation’ and others focused rather on ‘productive isolation from its ambitions’. This distinction may not be exactly congruent with the famous aporia of ‘complicity versus critique’ that Wagner recognizes as a recurrent quandary in the literature on Warhol—a question that, by its nature, ‘cannot be answered reliably’, despite or because of the unambiguous fact that in Red Race Riot ‘the artist paints as a liberal’—or to the theme of ‘conformity and difference’ that she identifies in some of his early work; but it is certainly related. For that very reason it is not easy to follow her in seeing this as a genuine division between her artists’ stances, which consistently seem quite ambivalent. Thus Johns’s reconstituted Stars-and-Stripes ‘speak to how decisively yet subtly our unconscious belonging to the national project can disrupt the surface of our daily life’. That’s beautifully put, and accurate in explicating Johns, precisely because of the way in which it mutually implicates belonging and disruption.

The subtitle of A House Divided seems to promise something of an overview, even a survey, which turns out to be elusive. Yet it raises the question, why 1955, rather than the more conventional starting point of 1945? Had Wagner followed the practice of taking the War’s end as her point of departure, she would surely have begun her book with an essay on Jackson Pollock, whose mythology was always predicated on his being the most American of American artists. Starting her time clock ten years later, her opening is equally preordained—which is not necessarily to contradict her assertion that ‘I made the choice carefully’. If abstract expressionism constituted what Irving Sandler once called ‘the triumph of American painting’, its aftermath or rejoinder begins with Jasper Johns and his paintings of the American flag. Hers is thus a beginning inmedia res, since as Wagner says Johns’s first Flag of 1954–55 ‘was made, not in the wake of abstract expressionism but directly in its midst’. However, one would have to contest her specification that this means ‘it constitutes a refusal of invention for convention’, since it is not clear that the abstract expressionists ever claimed invention as their goal, true as it is that they meant to disregard convention. The core of the book, in any case, concerns the art of the 1960s and 70s, with only Johns and David Smith to represent the 1950s, and Kara Walker bringing us up to the present.

Wagner emphasizes in its very first sentence that hers is ‘a book of individual essays, each stemming from its own moment and heading in its own direction’. Written between 1996 and 2011, the pieces were first published in journals—Representations, Grey Room, Artforum, October—catalogues or edited collections. Yet whatever their originating causes, these essays cross paths sufficiently to make the reader wish they could have been made to answer more explicitly to the moment and direction of the book itself. Examples: in the opening chapter, Wagner teases out the unexpected sense in which Jasper Johns’s flag series speaks about ‘whiteness and male identity’. Likewise, in the following one on Warhol, she reminds us that his Race Riot paintings are as much about gender as about race, ‘the endless spectacle of conflict between white and black men’ (my italics, but her emphasis). She thereby locates a silence regarding ‘the ongoing threats to women and children, whatever their colour’ in the discourse Warhol inherited and rearticulated. One can hardly help think back to the foregoing identification of themes of whiteness and manhood in Johns; in doing so, it is hard not to wonder in retrospect why Wagner did not find it necessary there to signal whether this should be taken as implying a similar sort of exclusion, and if so, how and why. Suddenly one wishes Wagner had pushed this point in her explication of Johns just that much farther, and that her discussion of Warhol could have speculated a bit on how and why he differs from Johns in his negotiations of gender and race.