In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940-1980

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In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940–80 is a major two-day international conference in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews on the 27th and 28th October 2017. The conference is generously funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art. The aim of the conference is to reassess how artists and art professionals negotiated the formidable reputation of American art, both within the US and internationally, between the years 1940 and 1980. We have chosen this timeframe because there is a general consensus that during these decades the prestige of the US art world – for which ‘New York’ functioned as a synecdoche – was understood to enjoy a global reach.

The period can be bracketed at one end by the 1942 exhibition ‘Artists in Exile’ at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, which featured the work of artists including the Chilean painter Roberto Matta, the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew and sculptor Ossip Zadkine, as well as the French surrealists Andre Breton and Andre Masson, and might be taken as emblematic of the internationalizing dynamics that, paradoxically, led to the US being perceived as the ‘center’ of the art world. But by the mid-late 1970s artists and critics were contesting this notion, from Donald Judd, who in his 1975 article ‘Imperialism, Nationalism and Regionalism’ provocatively stated that ‘Art is a peripheral activity, almost outside of the society of the United States,’ to Terry Smith, whose Artforum polemic ‘The Provincialism Problem’ deconstructed the metropolitan-provincial binary as entirely subjective and reliant on a locational perspective. For Smith, by the mid-1970s, the New York artworld itself was pervaded by provincialism.

Over the course of these four decades, responses to this ‘problem’, to borrow Smith’s language, varied enormously. The Argentine writer and curator Jorge Romero Brest reported that during the 1960s he made no less than nine trips to the US, which he felt had been invaluable for driving out ‘all vestiges of provincialism I might have.’ Others resisted the prevailing influence of American art. The Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer argued that American Pop art was itself ‘a very provincial aesthetic’. His verdict was that the international power of the US made its art styles seem universal and internationally relevant, whereas in actuality they were as local as any other regionally-specific trend. These contrasting ascriptions of ‘the provincial’ signal the nexus of issues that In and Out of American Art will address.

In recent decades, the principle that cultural innovation ripples out from a few western metropolitan cities has been systematically challenged. In line with Camnitzer’s assessment of American Pop Art, the objectivity of such accounts have been thrown into question by exposing the degree to which these histories are contingent on wider asymmetrical power relationships, insofar as they are shaped by the legacies of war, colonialism and protectionist trade relations. Scholars committed to demonstrating that so-called cultural ‘peripheries’ were also culturally generative centres, have abjured conventional evaluative notions such as artistic ‘originality’ and ‘influence’, and have proposed alternative models for narrating the histories of intercultural relationship, notably the ‘transnational’ and the ‘translocal’.

Our conference seeks to explore how artists moving in and out of the art worlds of American art during this period engaged with the power complex of provincialism, in the light of this current research emphasis on artistic transnational exchange. The ‘provincial’ might be a loaded and problematic concept, but excising it from art history only obscures the impact that its underlying ideologies had on the shaping of artistic reputations around the world. Charting how the international status of American art helped and hindered artists’ career options during this post-war period will be central to the concerns of this program. But we also want to stimulate further, broader reflection on how location-oriented terminology, such as the ‘provincial’, the ‘peripheral’ and the ‘regional’, deserves to be understood in an era when the authority of the mythological ‘centre’ no longer seems so total or secure.

In short, we want to bring the terms ‘provincialism’ and ‘transnationalism’ into a dialogue with one another. This will involve approaching the former through the lens of the latter, addressing the various ways in which artists and other art-world professionals creatively negotiated the cultural pressures and tacit expectations that are signaled by the idea of being ‘provincial’.

In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism invites participants to address questions including: How has the deliberate assumption of provincial and regional positions enabled artists and stimulated individual careers? To what extent have provincialism and regionalism fostered collectivity and communality in artistic practice? How were ideas about provincialism taken up by the Women’s Art Movement, and did they facilitate (de)constructions of gender and sexuality? In what ways did the politics of race factor in discourses surrounding provincialism, and how have artists sought to reverse its negative connotations? How might art that embraces a ‘provincial’ perspective challenge homogeneity, globalization and, by extension, the regimes of advanced capitalism? To what extent might provincialism and regionalism be considered a performance – and are such performances enabling or self-defeating?
Period27 May 2017
Event typeConference
LocationSt Andrews, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational