Theses Doctoral

Various Representational Tasks: Art and activism in the early work of Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier, 1967-1976

Frobes-Cross, Nicholas

This dissertation presents the early work of Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier as an attempt to intertwine political and aesthetic practice that was fundamentally distinct from the dominant, contemporaneous models of politicized avant-garde art. Throughout the first half of the 1970s these artists were in constant, close dialogue with one another, and, for the first time, this dissertation attempts to read their work during this period as a shared project. Considering the initial few years of their careers, it is an effort to understand how their practice emerged, and how it set itself apart from predominant forms of Conceptual art, post-Minimalism and institutional critique. In particular, it will explore how these three artists conceived of a relationship between political and aesthetic practice that was not dependent upon a self-reflexive investigation of their own art work's conditions of possibility. Drawing on realist and documentary traditions from the first half of the 20th century, Sekula, Rosler and Lonidier sought to create art that was always related to something beyond itself, developed in relation to the social world in which it existed. These artists neither assumed dependence on a given institutional, discursive formation, nor held out for an absolute escape from the institutions of the art world. Instead, they moved strategically between various locations, various publics and various discourses in a continual attempt to speak intelligibly within those sites most relevant to the political struggles they addressed.
In order to understand this strategic movement, it is necessary to read these artists’ works as utterances within momentary, contested discursive fields. As a result, this dissertation will provide close readings of several works through a detailed consideration of the particular situations in which they were created, displayed and received. Whether as flyers handed out at protests or self-consciously gallery friendly photo-text works, every piece will be read as a precise intervention within a specific location. Following this approach, each chapter focuses on a small number of works and reads them within the social and political events they both instigate and enter into, whether those are, as in the first chapter, a public dispute over the nature of art between two academic departments, or, as in the second chapter, the protests against the Vietnam War. Through each of these analyses this dissertation outlines these artists' shared attempt to produce art that only emerges through the discourses into which it enters, but is never entirely home wherever it might find itself.
By describing this fundamental premise of Rosler, Sekula and Lonidier's work, this dissertation both seeks to provide a more adequate accounting of this group’s shared project, and an alternative model for conceiving of the relation between political engagement and the post-war avant-garde.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Joseph, Branden Wayne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 6, 2016