In this essay I address the emotive charge of James Welling’s photographic abstractions from the early 1980s, described by the artist as “images about the act of feeling.” Welling’s endeavor to stage this “act,” I argue, places his work within a wider effort by peers like Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle to reassess what it meant for art to be “expressive.” At a moment when modernist models of this concept had lost their credibility and “expressionism” as a genre had come to appear politically toxic, such an inquiry took on new urgency, raising questions that remain central to ongoing debates about the relationship between art, affect, and the social.

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