Abdication in an artistic democracy : meaning in the work of Barnett Newman and Donald Judd, 1950-1970 (and thereafter)
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This dissertation considers what reticent works of art demand of us, and what purpose their reticence serves. Selected episodes in the careers of Barnett Newman and Donald Judd support a broader discussion of interpretive crises in postwar American art. The aim is to examine the nature of the gap between habits of conventional thinking, such as linear development and categorical definition, and artistic practices which try to break those habits. The discussion focuses on the period between 1950, the year of Newman’s first solo exhibition, and 1970, the year he died. To set this twenty-year span into its proper context, the first chapter considers the gestation of Newman’s formal project in relation to its time. The final chapter discusses the implications of historical assessment for the project which Newman helped to initiate and Judd helped to expand. Newman’s paintings seem to approach the limits of abstraction, and Judd’s objects seem to approach the conventional limits of art. Initial critical responses often concluded that there is little to discuss. Against this, the artists talked in terms which suggested that discussion is superfluous. This study pursues the hypothesis that reductive abstraction invokes two distinct modes of engagement: a pre-verbal, pre-rational, experiential mode; and a critical, interpretive, evaluating mode. The main question arising from this hypothesis is how these two modes are connected, separated, or intertwined. The secondary question, which is perhaps more important from a historical point of view, is why it was important for art to raise these problems in postwar America. This study examines the period when American art developed its own intellectual tradition as a heuristic field of open meaning, distinct from the programmatic doctrines of earlier avant-garde movements. This occurred during a period of realigned expectations as the United States adapted to its postwar role as a superpower, and to the conditions of geopolitical instability during the Cold War. This dissertation argues that postwar American art is best defined as a movement in terms of its effects on critical procedures rather than according to conventions of resemblance, social proximity, or initial efforts to construct categories for discussion.