MA History of Art

Beyond Abstract Expressionism: American Origins, Global Afterlives

Dr Oliver O’Donnell

This special option focuses on a style of artistic production which is most heavily associated with America but which has primordial roots in human experience writ large: abstract expressionism.  The course begins by investigating the traditionally understood origins of the style in New York in the 1940s, attending in particular to the relationships, experiences, and beliefs that led to its emergence.  Here the famous couple of Pollock and Krasner, for instance, is analysed through the lenses provided by both established and the most recent scholarship, as is Arshile Gorky’s flight from the Armenian genocide and the racism faced by the African-American Norman Lewis. Next the cultural networks that facilitated the rise of abstract expressionism in the United States are considered, including the various institutions and individuals that championed and supported it, both discursively at the level of criticism and practically at the level of patronage. The much discussed and still debated issue of CIA funding of abstract expressionism is unpacked in this context as are equally fundamental funders, like Peggy Guggenheim, publicity venues, like Life magazine, critics, like Clement Greenberg, and educators, like Hans Hofmann.  Finally, the course draws on Aby Warburg’s concept of Nachleben in order to track ‘afterlives’ of abstract expressionism; these are not secondary imitations of this style but rather autonomous and distinct, though fundamentally comparable and historically related, manifestations of it. Practitioners of European tachisme like Wols, Latin American artists like Armando Morales, Japanese Gutai members like Jirõ Yoshihara, and Indian painters like V. S. Gaitonde are evaluated, contextualized and compared to the artists who brought postwar American art to wide-spread international attention. In so doing, this special option aims to investigate the very coherence of abstract expressionism as a style—let alone as a national style—and to attend to its global pluralities and their intertwined ramifications.

Methodological issues and problematics that will be considered in the course include the existence of a style beyond a given medium, for instance between painting, sculpture, and performance; the fact that styles can have multiple origins in multiple national contexts; and the tenacious persistence of painting through periods when it was long-called a dead or bankrupt medium.  Theoretical issues to be considered include the enduring potential of mark-making to be expressive, the role of visual art in the construction of identity, and the possibility of visual form functioning as an international language that can be co-opted for various political ends.

Please note: site visits in the UK and further afield are subject to Covid-19 guidelines.

Course LeaderDr Oliver O’Donnell

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to the teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for the autumn term, or in some cases, the academic year.

Option Full MA History of Art

Special Options