American Art Since 1945

This book was recommended as part of the letter acknowledging my acceptance into the low-residence MFA program in the visual arts at the Vermont College of Fine Art. It’s a reasonably good basic overview of American Art history since 1945.

American Art Since 1945
By: David Joselit
Thames & Hudson World of Art
2003 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

The following verbatim quotations I found particularly interesting:

Page 9-10: “Influenced by postwar theories of existentialism, liberally leavened by Cold War paranoia, painters like Pollock sought to externalize — and thus to make public – what they saw as an internal psychological reality. Continuing the traditions of European Surrealism, which were introduced in New York via several expatriate European artists, ranging from poet and impresario of Surrealism Andre’ Breton to painters such as Roberto Matta and Andre’ Masson, unconscious desires and drivers were identified as the artist’s proper subject matter.”

Page 11: “Clement Greenberg, who with Rosenberg was the most influential critic of New York School painting, and whose writings continued to shape the understanding of modernist art in the United States to this day, was uneasily aware of the paradox of the personal and the public in art like Pollock’s. On the one hand Greenberg, like Rosenberg, insisted that ‘authenticity’ and emotion were the engines of significant painting; on the other hand he also defined abstraction in terms of larger supra-personal developments in the history of art. For Greenberg the objective of modernist painting was to analyze and express its basic constituent conditions as a medium. In the case of Pollock, this meant a dramatization of the material nature of paint — its viscosity in conjunction with its motion — as it is dripped and tossed onto the canvas. For Greenberg then, Pollock’s emotion transcended the painter’s own unconscious drives in order to express a broad cultural reality — the nature of modernity as expressed in painting. In general, the art of the New York School seized upon the most personal and individual psychic material in order to express a shared set of values and experiences.

Page 18: “Ideographic Pictures: The heroic struggle to attain and represent self-knowledge among painters of the New York School grew from their conviction that an individual’s personal existential acts — including acts of painting — could express a fundamental human nature. By conceiving their art in such general terms, the Abstract Expressionists created links between themselves and the viewers of their paintings, thereby constituting an inclusive public sphere which, in theory, embraced everyone.”

Page 42: “Fundamental to New York School painting was a belief that abstract art emerged from the artist’s psychic depth. A complex understanding of individuality encompassing several registers at once, ranging from personal heroism to nationalist ideology, underwrote the non-objective forms of Abstract Expressionism. It is all the more surprising, then, that while second, third, and fourth generation Abstractionists continued to promote a myth of personal aesthetic autonomy, many of the most promising directions in American abstraction in the 1950s dwelled on the impersonal, anonymous nature of the artistic gesture, or what art historian Yve-Alain Bois has called anti-, non-compositionality. Non-compositionality encompasses several aesthetic strategies, each of which is intended to bypass or suppress an artist’s personal gestural idiom.

Page 56: “… Painters engaged in non-compositionality continued working within the boundaries of a canvas but governed their gestures by autonomous systems like chance, deductive composition, and the grid. Conversely, in Happenings, the object-status of painting was dispensed with altogether as gesturalism moved into real time and space. These opposing strategies, each possessing it’s own aesthetic (austere formalism on the one hand, and expressionist excess on the other) nonetheless responded to a single artistic and historical condition — a breakdown in the perceived autonomy of the expressive individual.”

Page 62: Regarding Jasper John’s flag paintings where he incorporated newsprint into the paint … “In this painting, the most powerful symbol of political life, the flag, is composed of elements drawn from mass cultural communication — newsprint. Such an association between media and the public sphere serves as the foundation for much of the most advanced art of the 1960s.”

Page 77: “Coke may then be understood as an icon of America, and Campbell’s Soup an icon of family values. The term ‘icon’ refers to a venerated symbol representing fundamental religious or cultural beliefs. In his choice of subject matter, Warhol, along with several other Pop artists, recognized that commodities and their human counterparts — celebrities — function as the icons of consumer society.”

Page 109: “… As Morris stated in his essay ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part 2’ (1966); ‘There are two distinct terms; the known constant and the experienced variable.’ Minimalism thus holds together two ostensibly opposing models of the object: the ‘known constant,’ or mental picture of a shape like the cube, and the ‘experienced variable’ of a particular person’s encounter with a particular object at a particular time and place.”

Page 129: ” … many artists of the late 1960s and 1970s began to regard material things as irrelevant to an experience of art which, in their view, centered on the exchange of information. As Kynaston McShine, the curator of ‘Information,’ [MOMA 1970] put it in his catalogue essay, ‘With the sense of mobility and change that pervades their time, [the exhibiting artists] are interested in ways of rapidly exchanging ideas rather than embalming the idea in an ‘object'” McShine suggests two important issues here: first, he asserts that by 1970, objects had come to seem practically obsolete, and second, he claims that a dynamic exchange of information would only be ’embalmed’ if given permanent form. indeed traditional modes of experience were doubly challenged during the period of this exhibition.

Page 136: “One of the most prominent of these artists was Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) who, with an impressive array of artistic procedures, charted the psychological dimensions of information exchange. … his art tends to give too much information — or too little. Sometimes his amplifications take the form of materializing spaces which, in the ordinary course of events, are beneath the threshold of most observers’ perception.” See “A Cast of the Space Under My Chair” (1965-8) …

Page 154: “In an influential essay of 1976 Rosalind Krause identified the psychological dimension of such mirroring — narcissism — at the foundation of video art. While she was largely critical of video’s narcissistic impulse, Krauss did note certain strategies of auto-reflection which possessed critical force.”

Page 161: “A wide range of art objects of the late 1980s and 1990s were produced by channeling flows of information into systems, processes, and feedback loops. Such transformations in the art work presupposed equally significant changes in the art worker. No longer aspiring to be masters of a particular medium, many artists began to function as ‘mangers’ or ‘producers’ of information. For those associate with the practices known as Conceptual art .. this changed relationship between an artist and his or her product became an essential component of aesthetic practice. While later in the 1970s many artists world emphasize the experiences and conditions of particular identities based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality, earlier Conceptual artists — who were predominately white men — tended to adopt a more universalizing rhetoric in their philosophical propositions about art.

Page 171: “The so-called dematerialization of art thus encompasses two kinds of displacement. First, artworks were reinvented as extensions of an artist’s intellectual and physical ‘property,’ and second the consequent emphasis on propositions or body art required a shift from traditional practices like painting and sculpture to new information-oriented media like photography, video, and text. On account of their resemblance to reportage, such media were often called ‘documentation,’ underlining their secondary status as evidence.”

Page 193: “‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems,’ an important work of 1974-5 by Martha Rosler (b. 1943), was one of the first to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of photographic and textural ‘truth,’ Keenly aware that pictures of urban vagrants are among the clichés of documentary photography, Rosler set herself the task of representing the Bowery — that neighborhood of downtown New York mythically tied to the ‘bum — without falling into the bathos of victim photography.

Page 198: ” … Appropriation art entails at least two types of abstraction: first, it decontextualizes pictures by ‘abstracting’ them from their original contexts and association, but second, it causes advertisements or reproductions to be encountered as works of art, drawing greater attention to their form. This relationship between appropriation and abstraction is underlined by each of the three practitioners of re-photography discussed thus far. (Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Martha Rosler)

Page 201: “Like many artists during the 1980s Halley was seriously engaged with theories of surveillance elaborated by the philosopher Michel Foucault who, along with Jean Baudrillard and other French and German theorists, was widely read in the United States during this decade. For Foucault the production and dissemination of ‘information’ is intimately linked to apparatuses of social control. Halley’s paintings embody this dynamic by joining cells and prisons with abstracted ‘conduits,’ reminiscent both of plumbing and electronic cables, suggesting the paradox that physical alienation in the contemporary world is enabled by ever denser networks of communication.”

Page 205: “A number of artists who have engaged with the net as an aesthetic medium have explored its conventional protocols of sorting and serving up information — namely the web page and the search engine. Artists like Maciej Wisniewski (b. 1958) and Mark Napier (b. 1961) have invented alternative information portals which generate unconventional configurations of material allowing for different kinds of connections.”

Page 215: “Group Material’s ‘democracy of objects’ is a self-conscious analogue to procedures of political democracy in which diverse populations demand representation. Exhibitions like ‘Americana’ [Whitney, 1985] function as manifestos for object-equality but, in their eccentric juxtapositions, they cannot help but draw attention to social and political distinctions. Much of the best art of the 1990s has explored how such distinctions – what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called ‘regimes of value’ — are established through diverse cultural institutions, ranging from the home and office to civic entities like libraries and museums.”

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