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Marcia Brennan

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.

Titles by This Author

Mysticism and the Modern Museum

Artists have often taken rational, material existence as a starting point for engagement with metaphysics and mysticism, but no book until now has traced a similar strategy on the part of curators. In Curating Consciousness, Marcia Brennan focuses on one of the transformational figures of twentieth-century curatorial culture, and the main protagonist of this (until now) unacknowledged curatorial practice. James Johnson Sweeney (1900–1986) was hired by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to be the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. He went on to become the director of the Guggenheim Museum in the 1950s and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the 1960s. Throughout his career, Sweeney provocatively engaged motifs of mysticism in order to cast the modern museum as a secular temple of art. Sweeney believed that artworks could engender visionary perspectives and induce alternative modes of consciousness in their viewers; his career can be seen as an exercise in curating modernist consciousness itself.

Brennan describes how these motifs informed Sweeney's curatorial and textual engagements with specific artists and projects, including Marcel Duchamp's intricately androgynous constructions, Alberto Burri's images of hermetic alchemy and blood miracles, Pierre Soulages's creative transmutations of sacred stones into gestural abstract paintings, Jean Tinguely's apocalyptic yet playful kinetic experiments, and Eduardo Chillida's translations of theology and philosophy into sculpted fields of sparkling light.

Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction

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.

The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics

After the closing of his first art gallery in 1917, photographer Alfred Stieglitz reemerged in the New York art world in the 1920s. He achieved his comeback in large part through the innovative means he used to promote himself and the artists of his inner circle. Stieglitz and a number of well-established critics drew on period conceptions of sexuality, gender, and cultural identity to characterize the artists he championed as the fulfillment of a shared vision of a vital, nonrepressed American art.

In Painting Gender, Constructing Theory, Marcia Brennan examines how Stieglitz and the critics drew on early-twentieth-century discourses on sex and the psyche, particularly the theories of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, to characterize the artworks of the Stieglitz circle. Critics routinely described the often highly abstracted paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth as transparent displays of the most intimate aspects of the self, taking both subject matter and painterly form to be guided by the artist's own gendered and psychic energies.

Focusing on the key historical criticism and artworks, Brennan shows how the identities of all five Stieglitz circle artists were presented in terms of the masculinity and femininity, and the heterosexuality and homosexuality, thought to be embedded in their work. Brennan also discusses Stieglitz's relation to competing artistic and critical movements, including Thomas Hart Benton's regionalist art and Clement Greenberg's reformulation of formalism. Arguing that American formalist criticism consisted of a complex and paradoxical mixture of corporeality and disembodied transcendence, Brennan provides insight not only into the works of the Stieglitz circle but into the development of formalist criticism itself.