Beyond the easel : the dissolution of abstract expressionist painting into the realm of architecture

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2010-08

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Costello, Eileen Elizabeth

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Abstract

A defining feature of American abstract expressionist painting is its enormous size and scale. Heroic ambition, the vast American landscape, and the sense of "something big" happening in American painting are often cited as determining factors in this phenomenon. This dissertation examines how Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko not only painted large-scale canvases but, following trends in modern architecture, shifted their painting towards the construction of architectural environments, thus promoting the transformation of painting from a window in the wall to a wall without a window. The artist and architect Tony Smith, a close friend and colleague of these painters, played an active role in encouraging their interest in modern architecture. As a result of their investigations into the physical, as well as conceptual, limits of the canvas, these artists shifted the viewer’s experience from a perceptual experience of pictorial space to a physical encounter with actual space. In contradiction to the notion of the purely optical, one could describe this as a somatic viewing experience, tactile and active, which anticipated specific concerns of 1960s minimalism. This achievement redefines Pollock's, Newman's, and Rothko's legacy to the subsequent generation of artists and places their production into a broader historical framework.

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