UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Great moments in American painting : dogged looks from the other side of the fence Steiner, Shep


This thesis studies a unique development in modernist painting in the United States of America during the 1950s; the shift away from abstract expressionism, most vividly distilled in the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. In the context of the early Cold War, the appearance of Louis' first Veil series and Noland's Circle Paintings is no coincidence. They mark the onset of a new mood taking hold of the country in the years following World War II. Yet, if these colorful and deeply sensuous images seem to speak to a new optimism, to possibilities opened up, and to freedoms renewed, we would be missing the point. In fact, they are founded on a theory of expression that is not only critical of the surrounding culture, but stakes out the most pessimistic of positions possible in that culture. This thesis is an attempt to develop a series of hermeneutic frames for reading modernist abstraction in this negative light. In order to unpack these images I take recourse in the art criticism of Clement Greenberg; specifically his notion of the decorative, a kind of unity and immediacy of surface, which I implicate in a number of wide-ranging dialogues emerging around the modern subject. It is especially toward structuralist trends in American psychiatry and social psychology, that I turn my attention. For in effect, my interpretative operation hinges on a dismantling Of the decorative as a metaphor of the transformative or constitutive moment of the subject. That is, I break down the seamlessness of the decorative into a set of semantic components or fragments significant in the individual biography, yet silenced by the totalizing, intra-textual imperative of expressivity. What one finds in these paintings is that despite all attempts at expurgating intention in order to distill the aesthetic, an intentional structure can be found lying just under the surface, bound to the individual life lived, and functioning on a metonymic or associative level. It is toward the sobering question of materialism that I continually return. For if Greenberg's interest in Sullivanian Interpersonal Psychiatry provides an initial framework for addressing the problems of painting after abstract expressionism, it also provides an entrance to more specific questions about the transformative which Pollock entertained in terms of Jungian therapy and Gestalt psychology, which Louis' fascination with Rorschach Psychodiagnostics summoned, arid that Noland's stake in Reichian therapy amounted to. Undoubtedly the point is, that the aesthetic, if an image of plenitude, if a bearer of the Utopian impulse, is always paradoxically inscribed by the trace of a material history that precedes it, that renders it utterly contingent.

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