Modernism's Masculine Subjects
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.
About the Author
Marcia Brennan is Associate Professor of Art History at Rice University. She has previously taught art history at Brown University and the College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (2002) and Modernism's Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (2006), both published by the MIT Press.
"Marcia Brennan's fascinating book is a sustained exploration of a central paradox in the art of the 1950s and 60s: how formalist discourse celebrated abstraction and pure opticality while simultaneously delighting in a highly gendered, sensuous experience of the body. Beginning with an ingenious interpretation of the American reception of Matisse, she offers a series of close readings of both the paintings and the constructed media personae of de Kooning, Pollock, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland. Throughout, Brennan blends theory and social history so that the authoritative criticism of Clement Greenberg is revealingly cast against a period backdrop of masculinist anxiety, bourgeois domesticity, and popular visual culture ranging from House and Garden to Playboy."
—John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art, Smith College
"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."
—Michael Leja, 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."
—Eric Rosenberg, Associate Professor of Modern and American Art, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University