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2016 Warner Emily 00

The Dedalus Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for 2016 – 2017 has been awarded to Emily S. Warner of the University of Pennsylvania for her dissertation Painting the Abstract Environment: Abstract Murals in New York, 1935 – 60. The award carries a stipend of $20,000.

Ms. Warner’s dissertation argues that the abstract mural is a prime site from which to investigate changes in art, audience, and public space at midcentury. Abstract painters turned to the mural in the 1930s-1950s because it promised a scale and presence that easel paintings lacked: murals would be public, rooted to their sites, and addressed to a collective. Yet these ideals proved elusive.

Murals by Ilya Bolotowsky, Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and others were portable and exhibitable, and their publics were fragmented and dispersed. Rather than signifying an inherent publicness, the mural in these years signified a problem of publicness, a desire for a stable location and audience that did not in fact maintain.

The dissertation thus contributes to mural studies a new, historically attuned theorization of the mural in a period of relative disunity for the form, after the civic ideals of Beaux-Arts muralism but well before the participatory politics of the community mural movement. More broadly, it argues that our prevailing periodization of American twentieth-century art—with the Depression characterized as public and populist, and the postwar decades as private and commercialized—is inadequate to the complex ways in which both “public” and “private” were reformulated and mobilized across the prewar, wartime, and postwar decades.