Blake in Performance, Blake at the End of Times

February 7, 2018 – Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

I had the privilege of participating in “Blake in Performance, Blake at the End Times,” a public program organized by the Block Museum as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. 

My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the 1960s looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” 

Photo credits: Block Museum of Art


Ivan Albright - Newberry Library Seminar

January 26, 2018 – Newberry Library, Chicago

I enjoyed workshopping a paper on the enigmatic and provocative Chicago painter Ivan Albright (1897-1983) as part of the Newberry Library’s seminar on American Art and Visual Culture. Here’s my abstract for the paper, “Flesh: Ivan Albright’s Weird, Ugly Realism”:

When avant-garde French painter Jean Dubuffet visited Chicago in 1951, there was one artist he wanted to meet: Ivan Albright. By 1951, Albright had established a reputation as a “master of the macabre” best known for his painstakingly executed paintings of morbid subjects: decaying bodies, rotting doors, and funereal still lifes. “There are few pictures as alarming as those of Albright,” said Dubuffet; Albright had abolished totally “what were our canons of beauty,” and swept away “all the criteria of order.” Dubuffet, a champion of art brut (raw art), recognized in Albright a kindred spirit, an antihumanist who employed Old Master techniques in order to undermine the most cherished beliefs and values of Western civilization. Drawing on archival research and unpublished source material (including Albright’s fifty notebooks housed at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries), I argue that Albright, who seemed to have few contemporaries as a painter, is more productively understood as an antihumanist philosopher investigating the “aesthetics of ugliness” and the flat ontologies of humans and objects. 

© John P. Murphy
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