Modernism's Masculine Subjects
Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction
How postwar abstract modernist paintings came to be seen as metaphorical embodiments of masculine selfhood; an examination of the critical discourse surrounding the work of Matisse, de Kooning, Pollock, and the post-painterly Abstractionists.
In the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—when social pressures on men to conform threatened cherished notions of masculine vitality, freedom, and authenticity—modernist paintings came to be seen as metaphorical embodiments of both idealized and highly conflicted conceptions of masculine selfhood. In Modernism's Masculine Subjects, Marcia Brennan traces the formalist critical discourses in which work by such artists as Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock could stand as symbolic representations that at once challenged and reproduced such prevailing cultural conceptions of masculinity. Rejecting the typical view of formalism's exclusive engagement with essentialized and purified notions of abstraction and its disengagement from issues of gender and embodiment, Brennan explores the ways in which these categories were intertwined, historically and theoretically. Brennan makes new use of writings by Clement Greenberg and other powerful critics describing the works of Matisse, the postwar New York School abstract expressionists, and their successors, the post-painterly abstractionists. The paintings of Matisse, she argues, were represented in part as intellectually engaged and culturally respectable centerfolds. Brennan examines de Kooning's Woman series—perhaps the most significant effort to incorporate feminine presence within abstract expressionist imagery—as extended cultural metaphors for bourgeois masculinity's conflicted relationship with its feminine "others." She also shows how the aggressive energy of Pollock's nonfigural painterly idiom became domesticated in the press by the repeated pairing of his work with images of Pollock in the studio and at home with his wife, the artist Lee Krasner. Finally, discussing the rise of the post-painterly abstractionists in the sixties, Brennan shows how, both despite and because of the critical presence of Helen Frankenthaler, formalist responses to the works of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland provided an opportunity to promote idealized conceptions of masculine creativity.
Hardcover$19.75 T | £15.99 ISBN: 9780262025713 240 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 8 color illus., 39 b&w illus.
Paperback$9.75 T | £7.99 ISBN: 9780262524681 240 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 8 color illus., 39 b&w illus.
In this book Marcia Brennan extends her acute analysis of American art criticism and theory into the 1950s and 60s. She grapples tenaciously with the language, imagery, and rhetorical strategies of Clement Greenberg and others as they forged peculiar amalgams of transcendent abstraction, embodied artwork, and gendered artist. With imagination, intelligence, and intensity, Brennan situates postwar modernism within a compelling cultural history.
Professor and Sewell C. Biggs Chair in American Art History, University of Delaware
This is a fascinating and rigorous account of American abstract painting's critical fortunes between what might be called its Greenbergian and Friedian moments. Acknowledging the pioneering contributions by scholars such as Anne Wagner, Lisa Saltzman, and John O'Brian along the way, Marcia Brennan excavates with sophistication a politics of gendered significations for avant-garde painting embedded in the very formalist languages of a classic modernist formation. In the end, she presents an essential argument for the shift in emphasis between the 1950s and the early 1960s that recovers much of the complexity and contradiction inherent in the maintenance of painting's primacy on the eve of pop and conceptual art.
Associate Professor of Modern and American Art, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University