Jonathan Fineberg



I began studying early modern art in graduate school because at the time the “best” university programs in art history didn’t have faculty who specialized in teaching contemporary art. At the Courtauld Institute in London the study of art ended in 1915 and at Harvard it was frowned upon to work on anything after World War Two. So I wrote a dissertation on the early work of Kandinsky while continuing to write criticism in newspapers. But my first teaching job was at the University of Illinois where they hired me to create courses on contemporary art history and criticism. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being began from class notes in which I attempted to chart the field for myself and my students. My interest in living artists was nurtured by friendships early in my professional life with the painter Robert Motherwell, the artist Christo, and the critic Harold Rosenberg.

My earliest writings in art history concern the individual content of works of art. My book, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, presents the history of postwar art as having to do with the way in which works of art bring coherence to an artist’s experience of themselves in the world and to a society’s thoughts about itself as it recognizes and uses the structures conceived by artists and embodied in works of art. The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist looked at my discovery of an important and surprisingly overlooked body of source material for major masters of modernism like Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky, Dubuffet, and others and at how this material both shaped and was shaped by their individual projects.


When We Were Young: New Perspectives on the Art of the Child grew out of that fundamental discovery as I tried to understand what they and we have in common in our relationship to visual modes of thought. The books on individual artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to the Gates, A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson, and more recently Disquieting Memories: The Art of Zhang Xiaogang, have all further developed different aspects of my perspective on art in its social and psychological context. Even the more topical critical essays, exhibitions, and catalogues like Out of Town: The Williamsburg Paradigm (the first museum exhibition devoted to the emergence of Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a center of art production), the Roxy Paine catalogue (his first museum show), "Le collage de Paolozzi: sculpture dans un espace adimensionnel," and the recent essay for the Today Museum in Beijing on Wang Guangyi, “Dancing with Augustine,” all frame the work of art in a social context. Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art (both my PBS television show and the book) attempted to convey to a larger audience how works of art have helped to define us. Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain theorizes my work as a whole and opens new questions about what works of art do for us psychologically, socially, and neurologically.


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