John O'Brian

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John O'Brian is a writer, curator and art historian. He is best known for his books and articles on modern art history and criticism. Since 1987, he has taught at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, where he is a Faculty Associate of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and held the Brenda & David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2011.[1] He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2009,[2] and received an honorary degree from the University of Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 2011.

Early life and education[edit]

O’Brian was born in 1944 to Canadian parents in Bath, England. He was educated at New Park School in St. Andrews, Fife, and Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, before entering University of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he received an Honours B.A. in Political Science and Economics in 1966.

He worked at the Toronto firm of Harris & Partners until 1974, before enrolling at York University and starting to write art criticism initially, then poetry, and eventually art history. He received his Ph.D. in art history from Harvard University under the supervision of T.J. Clark (historian) in 1990.[3] While at Harvard, he was a member of the Pumping Station, a Cambridge collective of radical thinkers that met at the house of Gillian and Iain Boal.


After publishing a monograph in 1983, David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting, he published the first two volumes of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism in 1986. The books generated wide international interest and debate, establishing O’Brian’s career as an historian of modernism. Alice Goldfarb Marquis has made the case that O'Brian's work on Greenberg helped to establish his reputation.[4] The second two volumes of the edition, which also received broad attention, appeared in 1993. In an editorial written for The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer expressed admiration for Greenberg’s criticism but distaste for O’Brian’s politicization of it.[5]


O’Brian has lectured internationally – in Australia, China, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and South Africa as well as across North America and Europe[6] – often with a Canadian bias. He has been professionally involved with museums and galleries, either as a curator or an advisor. From 1991-1998, he was a Special Advisor to the board of the National Gallery of Canada.


His current research focuses on the role of photography in the production of nuclear narratives since the end of World War II. The technologies of photography and nuclear fission, he contends, are intimately connected to one another as well as to the social and political conditions of postwar modernity. The research forms part of a long-term project he calls “Camera Atomica.”[7]

Selected publications[edit]


  • David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983.
  • Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 and 1993.
  • Degas to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection. New York and Cambridge, Mass.: Harry N. Abrams and Harvard University Art Museums, 1988.
  • Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State. Co-edited with Bruce Barber and Serge Guilbaut. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • More Los Angeles Apartments. Vancouver: Collapse/VAFS, 1998.
  • Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • All Amazed: For Roy Kiyooka. Co-edited with Naomi Sawada and Scott Watson. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002.
  • Greenberg Variations. Portland, Oregon: The Back Room, 2007.
  • Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art. Co-edited with Peter White. Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2007.
  • Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War. Co-written with Jeremy Borsos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.


  • “Postcard to Moscow,” in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity, edited by Jordana Mendelson and David Proschaska (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 182-93, 222-24.
  • “Amerika Dropt a Bomb on Nevada,” Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory 14, No. 4 (Fall 2010), 63-77.
  • “Another Report on the Age of Extinction,” Canadian Review of American Studies 38, No.1 (2008), 191-98.
  • “Bernard Smith’s Early Marxist Art History,” Thesis Eleven (Australia), No. 82 (August 2005), 29-37.
  • “Anthem Lip-Sync,” The Journal of Canadian Art History XXI/1 & 2 (2000), pp. 140–151.
  • "Shining on the Modernist Parade: The American Sacralization of Matisse at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1948," Coloquio Internacional de Historia del Arte (Mexico City) 20, 1997, pp. 771–805.


  1. ^ "Art History, Visual Art and Theory Department at the University of British Columbia"
  2. ^ "ibid.". UBC. Retrieved 3 May 2012. 
  3. ^ Elizabeth Lumley, Canadian Who's Who (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 983.
  4. ^ Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 242-46.
  5. ^ "Hilton Kramer, "Clement Greenberg & the Cold War ," The New Criterion (March 1993), 4."
  6. ^ "John O'Brian CV (pdf)". Retrieved 3 May 2012. 
  7. ^ "Art History, Visual Art and Theory Department at the University of British Columbia".