The spread of materialism in America during the economic boom that followed World War II led some artists to respond by withdrawing into the purely internal operations and phenomenology of art and art making. Clement Greenberg, one of the most influential American art critics of the twentieth century, coined the term “post-painterly abstraction” to define what he saw as a dominant feature of this turn. The subject of an exhibition Greenberg organized in 1964 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it describes a move by some painters toward the delineation of geometric shapes using intensely chromatic but thinly applied pigments. Regarding the new trend as an answer to the problem he characterized as the overly decorative degenerate mannerism, the “turgidities,” of second-generation abstract expressionism, Greenberg and his followers positioned the flatness, clarity, and “opticality” (as opposed to tactility) of post-painterly abstraction as the leading edge in modern painting. Greenberg’s disciple Michael Fried, while a Harvard graduate student in 1965, famously organized the exhibition Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella at the Fogg. In the accompanying catalogue, he sought to define the self-referential condition of post- painterly abstraction, arguing that such works should be judged on their visual qualities rather than on their historical or social context.
Though Greenberg’s and Fried’s ideas circulated broadly, other lines of abstraction thrived during this period on both sides of the Atlantic. Josef Albers mediated the geographic and temporal divide between the pre- and postwar avant-gardes. A former Bauhaus professor, he continued to be an influential teacher in the United States after immigrating in the 1930s. His mesmerizing, reductive, and repetitive Homage to the Square paintings assumed special relevance for a younger generation of artists exploring anew the frontiers of opticality and seriality. Using found objects and industrial materials, sculptors such as Max Bill, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, and David Smith evoked urban and manufactured forms in works that achieved dynamic effects through light interacting with their surfaces. Photographers, especially those with ties to Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design in Chicago and Otto Steinert at the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany, also pushed the boundaries of abstraction in studies of flatness, geometries, and patterns.