Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist

By Grubbs, David | Chicago Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist


Grubbs, David, Chicago Review


Caroline A. Jones. Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

In this vigorous, ambitious book Caroline Jones describes a recent, periodizing shift in the way that people have conceived of artists' studios. This shift-one that divides the 1950s from the 1960s-is the studio's change from the site of solitary, Abstract Expressionist ritual to a space increasingly defined by technological and antihumanist metaphors. The most enduring image of the Abstract Expressionist studio comes to us through Hans Namuth's film and photographs of Jackson Pollock's isolated and wholly absorbed "dance" of painting, in which Pollock's Easthampton studio registers as sacred wilderness. By contrast, the diverse practices of the 1960sthe real subject of this book-refuse comprehensive images such as Namuth's representations of Pollock. Jones thus selects three artists more or less from the mainstream of the 1960s: Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and Robert Smithson. These are good choices. Through these three individuals we see the studio in various incarnations: as a business overseen by "executive artist" Stella; as Factory managed by Warhol; and as the space of modernism from which Smithson emerges-escapes!-into the mature phase of his career.

Stella, Warhol, and Smithson share what Jones terms, after Leo Marx, the rhetoric of the technological sublime. All three artists are partial to industrial materials and methods of production, particularly seriality. The technological sublime is invoked with regard to these artists in order to contrast it with the natural sublime of Abstract Expressionists Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Stella's particular mode of technological sublimity is iconic in his desire for his monochrome "stripe paintings" to function as, in his words, "a kind of visual imprint...a rubber stamp" (156) that can be perceived in a glance. Jones pointedly reproduces Stella's 1963 hexagonal painting Sidney Guberman alongside the 1960 octagonal logo for the Chase Manhattan bank. By contrast, Warhol's flirtation with the technological sublime is more profoundly performative, as exemplified by his habit of insisting that his work had been made by assistants "Brigid" [Polk] or "Gerard" [Malanga]. Finally, Jones reads Smithson's writings, and dispersed works such as the site/nonsite pieces, as means for radically restructuring a sublimity that had been manifestly thematized in his earlier work.

The strengths of Machine in the Studio are numerous. In addition to the compelling larger narrative, particularly of value is the subtle and unexpected underscoring of continuities between Stella and Warhol. Jones isolates but never overstates these points. Stella and Warhol share a maddening ambivalence in their frequent metaphors of labor and management, and of industry and post-industry. Stella is at one and the same time "house painter," using the workaday skills of his onetime job, and "executive," delineating and overseeing production. For Warhol, the oscillation is between the studio as Factory and as "art business. …

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