John O'Brian

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John O'Brian
John O'Brian

(1944-04-02) April 2, 1944 (age 75)
Bath, England
EducationUniversity of Toronto, York University, Harvard University
OccupationWriter, art historian, professor, curator

John O'Brian is a professor, writer and curator. 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 doctorate from the 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. There, he began to initially write art criticism, then poetry, and eventually art history. He received his PhD in art history from Harvard University under the supervision of T.J. Clark 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] Two additional volumes of the Greenberg edition 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 is the editor or author of eighteen books and more than sixty articles.


O'Brian has lectured internationally in Australia, China, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and South Africa as well as across North America and Europe.[6] 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 is on the engagement of photography with the atomic era. The technologies of photography and nuclear fission, he contends, are intimately entwined to one another as well as with the social and political conditions of postwar modernity. The research forms part of a long-term project he calls "Camera Atomica."[7]

Camera Atomica[edit]

Guest curated by O'Brian, Camera Atomica is "the first substantial exhibition of nuclear photography to encompass the entire postwar period from the bombings of Hiroshima in 1945 to the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011."[8] Currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, this exhibit includes over 200 works ranging from photographs taken by the United States government of atomic bomb testings, photos of anti-nuclear protests on the streets of Toronto, to images of the utilization of nuclear technology in medicine.[9] In addition to addressing issues around the nuclear era, Camera Atomica also makes visible the intertwined relations between nuclear technology and the photographic medium. Peter Galison wrote, "photography is indelibly woven into the not-yet-ended history of the nuclear age" and "this remarkable show and catalogue promise to make clear that the age of the nucleus is also and always an age of the image."[10]

Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse[edit]

In this study of Henri Matisse, "O'Brian argues that Matisse's sober presentations of himself were calculated to fit with the social constraints and ideological demands of the times."[11] Diane Dillon writes that O'Brian's treatment of "Matisse's ever shifting position among various interpretive communities" is compelling and that Ruthless Hedonism impressively integrates "the history of individual objects by Matisse with larger institutional histories and trends."[12]

Exhibitions Organized[edit]

  • Bombhead, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, March–June 2018. Curator.
  • Camera Atomica, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, July–November 2015. Curator.
  • After the Flash, WORK Gallery, London (UK), October–December 2014. Co-curator.
  • Strangelove's Weegee, Presentation House Art Gallery, North Vancouver, June–July 2013. Curator.

Selected publications[edit]

Books and Exhibition Catalogues[edit]

  • David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983.
  • Degas to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection. New York and Cambridge, Mass.: Harry N. Abrams and Harvard University Art Museums, 1988.
  • Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 and 1993.
  • The Flat side of the Landscape: The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1989.
  • 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. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2011.
  • Strangelove's Weegee. Vancouver: Presentation House Gallery, 2013.
  • Camera Atomica. Editor. London and Toronto: Black Dog Publishing and the Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015.
  • Breathless Days, 1959–1960. Co-edited with Serge Guilbaut. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. Forthcoming.


  • "Landscape as Fordscape," in From Tierra Del Fuego to the Arctic: Landscape Painting in the Americas (Toronto and São Paulo: Art Gallery of Ontario and Pinocoteca de São Paulo, 2015), 188–93.
  • "The Bomb, the Group of Seven, and Douglas Coupland's G7 Series," in Douglas Coupland: Everywhere Is Anywhere Is Anything Is Everything (Vancouver and London: Vancouver Art Gallery and Black Dog, 2014), 69–71.
  • "Morrice and Matisse: Bedfellows Under the Sign of Modernism," Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse (Quebec: Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, 2014), 113–135.
  • "Sur le plateau de Docteur Folamour," in Errances Photographiques: Mobilité, Intermédialité, edited by Suzanne Paquet (Montreal: Presses de L‘Université de Montréal, 2014), 185–200.
  • "On Photographing a Dirty Bomb," in The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada, edited by Carol Payne and Andrea Kunnard (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), 182–94.
  • "Ishiuchi Miyako Interviewed by John O'Brian," in Hiroshima by Ishiuchi Miyako (Vancouver; UBC Museum of Anthropology, 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.
  • "The Nuclear Family of Man," Japan Focus: Asia Pacific Journal, July 2008. (Re-published on The History News Network)
  • "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 May 3, 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)" (PDF). Retrieved May 3, 2012.
  7. ^ "Art History, Visual Art and Theory Department at the University of British Columbia".
  8. ^ "Camera Atomica," Art Gallery of Ontario
  9. ^ [Lise Hosein,, August 5, 2015]
  10. ^ [Peter Galison,, May 2015]
  11. ^ "Ruthless Hedonism, University of Chicago Press
  12. ^ [Diane Dillon, book review,]