Plastic Fantastic: American Sculpture in the Age of Synthetics

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This dissertation considers the role of plastics as a sculptural medium in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. At this time, artists were turning to synthetics in large numbers and with great enthusiasm, in spite of wavering public opinion on plastics in the U.S. I argue for the significance of this “plastics moment” for the arts by looking closely at the work of four artists: Donald Judd (1928–1994), Eva Hesse (1936–1970), De Wain Valentine (b. 1936), and Frederick Eversley (b. 1941). I position their sculptures in the social context of synthetics in twentieth-century America. In their distinctive practices, Judd, Hesse, Valentine, and Eversley each used plastics with a pioneer’s zeal: working with local industries, creating new means of production, and even developing formulas for the materials.

Plastic Fantastic is an interdisciplinary text, engaging scientific and cultural histories in conversation with American art scholarship. I focus on the production accounts of the objects to understand how these four artists took on the challenge of synthetics, and consider the diversity of substances used, looking at sculptures in Plexiglas, Fiberglas, and polyester resin. Using a technical approach to art history, I expand the literature on artworks from this period, which often omits material details and overlooks plastics’ place at this crux of sculpture in the U.S. My dissertation illuminates the important innovations of Judd, Hesse, Valentine, and Eversley to understand this juncture in the 1960s and 1970s, when American art found plastics.