Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


David Joselit

Committee Members

Mona Hadler

Rachel Kousser

Katy Siegel

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Contemporary Art | Modern Art and Architecture


The “death of painting” is a mantra repeated throughout the twentieth century, at once taken for granted and endlessly debated. This dissertation reconsiders the “death of painting” from the vantage point of the midcentury moment in the U.S. in order to challenge the notion that artists of this time had “killed,” objectified or dissolved painting into 1960s practices like performance and Minimalism. With Abstract Expressionism acting as the fulcrum between a historical paradigm in which painting was dominant, even synonymous with “art,” I focus on the work of three pairs of artists to understand how painting came to be considered one approach among many, what Thierry de Duve calls an “art-in-general” system where anything goes. I first consider why Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman were the Abstract Expressionist painters championed by artists who rejected painting, contrasting what I call “logo-painting” with their more fluid, diagrammatic paintings. If they offered a path forward it was because they created possibilities for the work of art to function as a system of relations. I then consider how the anti-painting rhetoric of Allan Kaprow and Donald Judd reveals the way their respective practices can be considered a function of painting rather than a destruction of it. Analyzing both their major works and their early writings done as students at Columbia under Meyer Schapiro, I argue that they were able to open painting up because they were engaged with it. Robert Ryman and Frank Stella are finally presented as two painters whose serial production functions at times as an archival approach, wherein discrete formal parts and whole paintings work under a particular overarching logic. While physically separate, their paintings become difficult to read as individual, autonomous works of art. The ability to undermine the model of painting that promotes an inactive viewer, without literally breaking the format apart, made these painters at once emblematic of the rhetoric about both the “death” and resurrection of painting.