Abstraction, expression, kitsch: American painting in a critical context, 1936-1951

Access full-text files




Price, Justine Dana

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This following is a study on abstract painting: the critical reception and analysis of painterly practice--performative, experimental, dissenting--in New York from 1936 to 1951. By metonymy, this study also looks at the figure in the political realm via the critiques offered by socially-oriented critics at this time (some of whom were also art critics). As the boundless secondary literature on this period has noted, the painting of the New York School would "triumph" with "stunning success" by the late 1950s. In other regards, the subject of this dissertation is that of failure. The revolution (or, "the idea of Revolution") that had been hoped for by so many left-wing radicals in the 1930s never quite came to pass or, later, went horribly wrong: first in Spain and then elsewhere. "Modern art, like modern literature and modern life," Clement Greenberg concluded in a 1948 essay on the Old Masters "has lost much." Greenberg's essay on the Old Masters appeared in the same number of Partisan Review as Hannah Arendt's essay, "The Concentration Camps." This is the generation of critics, intellectuals and artists who bore the brunt of articulating the unspeakable horrors of the Camps and the Bomb--manmade places and events that were "beyond human comprehension." This study is also about belief, of kinds: a Modernist belief in the agency of the artist, in the discernment of the critic, and of a "superstitious regard for print," to which Greenberg referred with irony in a 1957 essay (artists didn't always believe what they read, he would conclude). Irving Howe, the founder of Dissent in 1954, supposedly once quipped that, "when intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine." The dissertation at hand contains a number of kinds of critical statements: ones of ambiguity and of skepticism, and others of crisis and disinterest, directed towards art objects and elsewhere, and expressed by writers at mid-century, some especially subtle and acute. Modernist belief, even if betrayed too often, allowed these critics often to escape velleities, or other empty gestures, in their writing.