Test Subjects: Psychology and the Viewer of American Sculpture, 1955-1975

Ragain, Melissa Sue, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Singerman, Howard M. Singerman, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Summers, David, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Affron, Matthew, Department of Art, University of Virginia

This project examines how debates within the field of art psychology were reflected in attitudes toward viewing and sculptural display, and an increasing tendency to address work to a mobile and discovering viewer. In 1967, the critic Michael Fried famously posited a transcendental model of sculptural experience. Many other scholars have described sculpture of the 1960s in phenomenological terms, partly turning away from modernist notions of a transcendent viewing subject. I argue against both readings that sculpture in the 1960s was decisively marked by a new interest in the reproducible effects of the scientific experiment. Amplified by the contemporaneous interest in art and technology collaborations, this scientific treatment was merged variously with contemporary notions of sexual radicalism, consumerist spectacle, technological optimism and social engineering. The initial chapter charts the changing terrain of art psychology as the "arts of communication" replaced the existentialist position in the late 1950s through the 1970s. Though continuing to emphasize formal relationships, Art Psychology read "formalism" as a pejorative term representing a fatal split between form and concrete existence. Alternatively, they offered an analysis of composition as aspects or behaviors of a "hidden clockwork of nature" that emphasized relationship of form to vision and knowledge. The second chapter interprets certain sculptures by Robert Morris's, which respond to discussions in art criticism concerning the repression of memory and death. Knowledge had become the primary secular substitute for Michael Fried's own notions of subjective survival through the attainment of "grace," and the eternal time of transcendence had been rewritten into the eternal sameness of a hard-wired subject of perception. My third chapter investigates the artist and teacher Gy├Ârgy Kepes's endorsement of a structuring vision based on Bauhaus design principles and Gestalt psychology. The fourth chapter explores libidinal psychology and the study of the child (which I argue was a kind of "perfect viewer" in the 1960s). My examples are the playground pieces of Mark di Suvero. In the final chapter, I examine the work of the conceptual artist Hans Haacke and his use of the theme of survival in works that combine the ecological and the technological, and which posit a primitive viewer.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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