The most radical act: Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt
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The problematic of art and politics, of cultural form and ideological motive, the political dimension of the aesthetic and vice versa, is at the root of many of studies of post-war American art. Depending on the author, this is the moment of the avant-garde’s complete depoliticization, or its politicization in the wrong direction; it is the moment when emancipatory politics is lost from art, or when it simply merges, along with art, into the rest of everyday life. This dissertation addresses this problem as well, but it suggests a vantage point and an example in which the energies of progressive Leftism at this moment are neither lost to conservative reaction nor hidden in increasingly exotic counter-cultural forms or in dense academic theorizing but staged, almost transparently, in the classic forms and traditional terms of socialist debate: anarchism vs. communism, the division of labor, self-alienation vs. self-realization, etc. The vantage point is located by the culture critic Harold Rosenberg. In the first half of this dissertation I focus on Rosenberg, particularly his concept of Action Painting. Against its common reading as referring to unbounded painterly spontaneity, I take Action Painting, informed by Marx’s philosophy of action, as outlining a materialist aesthetic grappling with the outstanding conundrums of revolutionary dialectics. It is with this re-vamped conception of Rosenberg’s criticism that I frame and enter the second part of the dissertation, a sustained comparison of Barnett Newman’s and Ad Reinhardt’s paintings and writings. Action Painting provides the theoretical arena in which to examine these two painters’s negotiations of artist and worker, art and labor, artwork and commodity, process and thing, theory and practice, freedom and necessity. It is within such a framework that I am able to indicate how political commitments and painting practices cohere in Newman’s and Reinhardt’s work. The socialist struggle over true revolutionary identity is here, both figured and grounded in the very act of painting, in Action Painting.