Through the Looking Glass: Race and Gender in the Reception of Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, and Mark Tobey

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Through an examination of the art world reception of four nonfigurative American artists, this dissertation determines that concerns about race and gender are ever-present, and affected how onlookers interpreted the artists' creations. By focusing on the critical, academic, and market reception of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Norman Lewis (1909-1979), Alma Thomas (1891-1978), and Mark Tobey (1890-1976), I conclude that the malleable components of race and gender, elements connected by difference and relegation, fluctuate in the reception. As such, at times race and gender manifest overtly, while at other times, they play indirect roles in the reception of the artists. Further, my work illuminates the fact that later critics and scholars recycled the terminology and ideas about race and gender included in the early reception.

I form a nuanced picture of the lives, careers, and output of these artists, underscoring the subjective and manipulated aspects of reception. This layer of detail distinguishes this dissertation from other studies of these artists. I adopt key methodologies, which enable this close consideration of the fine distinctions in their reception. Feminist analysis, reception theory, and auction market analysis uniquely intersect to create a complicated yet clarified picture of reception as a confluence of manipulation factors.

I unravel the concept of "art world," to show that this entity is composed of a variety of subgroups, with diverse opinions. The recognition of these variations enables this nuanced understanding of reception. This aspect of my work, as well, is distinctive, and even has broad applications within the field of art history.

Exploring in detail how critics and scholars interpreted and constructed the artists and their output, I present the mechanics of race and gender in the reception of four diverse artists. I underscore the structures of power inherent in the categories of identity, and how hierarchies are used to integrate and relegate artists to the margins. This dissertation shows that even within the scope of nonfigurative art creations, interpreters infuse race and gender into their readings of the objects. My work demonstrates the extent to which identity was a core value for twentieth-century critics and scholars.