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Vitality in Crisis: Rethinking the Atomic Legacy in Postwar U.S. Art

  • Author(s): Snyder, Benjamin Andrews
  • Advisor(s): Bryson, Norman;
  • Kester, Grant
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the roles and legacies of atomic weapons in the formation of post-World War II United States national culture and the post-1945 U.S. art canon. While the consideration of the presence of nuclear weapons in postwar art history has often been constricted to specific atomic imagery existing within an accepted historical framework (e.g. the “Atomic Age,” c. 1945-1960), this dissertation traces a much deeper level of influence beyond the standard “atomic” imagery and outside the received (art) historical framing.

The argument begins by exploring the distinct rupture that occurred within United States public consciousness in the wake of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and identifies how, as a recuperative gesture in the wake of this rupture, a new problematic rhetoric of life, under a rubric of “vitality,” emerged across mainstream U.S. political, economic, and art discourses. The dissertation then extends this framework forward to provide new studies of three important U.S. artists, Robert Morris, Andy Warhol, and Ana Mendieta. Together, the studies show how, often contrary to their standard receptions and placements within in the art historical literature, their transformations of the U.S. avant-garde landscape, beginning in 1960, were deeply informed by questioning the troubled, paradoxical idea of life that had become dominant in mainstream postwar United States discourse in the wake of the U.S.’s development, use, and proliferation of atomic weapons.

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