UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cotton duck canvas and the gray flannel suit : the material dialectics of American formalism Steiner, Shep


This thesis is concerned with art and culture in America from 1948 to 1955, primarily a period bound shift in the aesthetic practice of modernism which would result in the stain painting of Morris Louis. The purpose of this thesis is to trace the shift in cultural values which would promote the emergence and development of this new paradigm, that is to link a wider social and cultural progenesis of change to its formal articulation upon a highly aestheticized abstract canvas. Clement Greenberg's position in these negotiations is crucial. For him, the formal qualities of stain painting resonated and were linked to the larger cultural field of a vital and prospering new order. Intense color, "openness", and their implication of anonymity, united to become the signification of a particular kind of potential, translated as optimism, which he felt the moment possessed. This investigation will focus on the formal properties of stain painting as the elements of a project closely related to the politics of Greenberg himself; that indeed a generative stylistics for stain painting, specifically Louis' 1954 "Veil" series, is coupled to a distinct political culture at that time being elaborated. The historically specific framework of this thesis attempts to reconcile some of the inconsistencies in the reception of stain painting -- its lack thereof in the early 1950s, and its ultimate acceptance and critical acclaim by the 1960s. This thesis contends that the formal qualities of stain painting were a vection for the politics of a core group of Cold War intellectuals involved in an affirmative project for capitalism. That is any meaning — and hence too wider success — impersonality might have had, gained resonance only as the politics of this core of intellectuals themselves gained in power. To investigate these issues this study probes the complexities and the key position in the debate on popular culture. In an America of heightened consummerism and Cold War tensions what emerges as crucial is a reconception of the individual, of avant garde practice and of modernity itself.

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