What’s in a brushstroke made with quick-drying tempera? Or in a can of industrial paint deftly poured out on the canvas? What deeper forms of embodiment, what attitudes to history, to formal transmission, and self-expression are contained in artists’ choice of medium, facture, and scale? These were urgent questions for artists in the U.S. in the years around World War II and after. Beyond subject matter and formal language, such choices exposed the major fault lines within a field of American painting generally taken to be a singular ascent toward New York school abstraction and its international triumph. Abstract Expressionism found resistance from several quarters, and no more so than among a group of queer New York figurative artists and their apologists. Using tempera, working on an intimate scale, and rejecting self-expression in favor of enigmatic and symbolically charged subjects grounded in historical languages of art, these “Symbolic Realists” bring into focus a radically different structure of aesthetic value. Well received when first shown internationally in London in 1950, their marginalization exposes not only homophobia, but the persistent hold of what Hal Foster called “the expressive fallacy.”
Angela Miller is Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis. She is author of Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875, which won awards from the Smithsonian Institution and the American Studies Association, and lead author, with five others, of American Encounters: Cultural Identity and the Visual Arts from the Beginning to the Present, an integrated history of American arts from pre-conquest to the present.
Recent work includes essays on Rockwell Kent; Jackson Pollock; Pavel Tchelitchew; the Museum of Modern Art between the wars, and the reception of self-taught artists in the 1940s. She has held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC); the Metropolitan Museum; and the NEH (2019-20), for her book project “Countermoderns: Reason and Magic in the Mid-Century Circle of Lincoln Kirstein.”
Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)