Postwar animation studio United Productions of America (UPA) is credited with bringing a modern art sensibility to the American cartoon, a simplified, abstract style that transformed the look of studio animation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This article examines UPA’s signature style alongside that of Precisionism, a little-discussed school of modernist American painting peaking in the 1920s. In so doing, it complicates our understanding of UPA’s relationship to modern art, and to modernism more broadly. Precisionism sought to bring order to a chaotic modern environment by reducing the visible world to a semi-abstract form in which urban and industrial scenes are built from geometric shapes, hard-edged lines, and solid color fields – precisely the traits defining UPA’s style. Through an analysis of the animation studio’s cartoons in the context of its beginnings in wartime training films, and of the written statements of its artists, this article positions UPA as a resurgence of the particular modernist energy driving Precisionism’s visual style: a theoretically engaged attempt to develop a new mode of vision capable of navigating the sensory overwhelm of modern life. It thus draws a line between these two periods in American cultural history, enabling a clearer understanding of mid-century modernism as a cultural phenomenon, and of postwar animation’s place within a decades-long current of modernist experiment.
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