John O’Brian completed his Ph.D. in art history at Harvard under the supervision of T.J. Clark and joined University of British Columbia in 1987, where he is Professor and Faculty Associate of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. He has published on modern art history and on theory and criticism, particularly on the institutionalization of modernism in North America, producing more than a dozen books and seventy articles. From 2008-2011, he was the Brenda & David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies. During his tenure, he explored the engagement of photography with the atomic era in Canada. The research formed part of a larger project on nuclear photography in North America and Japan, called “Camera Atomica,” which is being supported by a research grant from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada. “Camera Atomica” is also the name of an exhibition he is preparing for the Art Gallery of Ontario. A related book, Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War (Intellect Books), co-authored with Jeremy Borsos, was published in 2011.
Some of his publications focusing on the institutionalization and reception of modernism are: Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, co-edited with Peter White (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), which the critic Nancy Tousley called “the most innovative and important book of the decade on contemporary Canadian art”; Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which won an American Association of University Press Book Award; Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, which was co-edited with Bruce Barber and Serge Guilbaut (University of Toronto Press, 1996); The Flat Side of the Landscape (Mendel Art Gallery, 1989), which won the Braide Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the field of Canadian art history; Degas to Matisse (Abrams and the Harvard University Art Museums, 1988); and David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting (Coach House Press, 1983). He is also the editor of the four-volume edition of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1986 and 1993). The volumes were named to The New York Times list of "best" books of the year in both 1986 and 1993, and have received hundreds of scholarly citations.
O’Brian has lectured across North America as well as in Europe, Israel, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, India, China and Japan. He was the Shastri Visiting Professor in India in 1997 and Visiting Research Professor at Ritsumeikan University in Japan in 2007. Since arriving at UBC, he has supervised more than 90 M.A. and Ph.D. theses. He currently serves on the editorial advisory boards of Open Access Books; Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies; BC Studies; Emily Carr University Press; and The Journal of Canadian Art History.
Beyond his academic responsibilities, he has been professionally involved with museums and art galleries, especially the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Presentation House Gallery, and the Belkin Art Gallery. He was on the Executive Committee of the board of the Vancouver Art Gallery from 1989-1991 and a Special Advisor to the board of the National Gallery from 1991-1998. At the University of British Columbia, he is Chair of the Provost’s Committee on University Art.
From 2002-05, O’Brian was Chair of the Program in Canadian Studies and Associate Director of the International Canadian Studies Centre at UBC. Approximately half his research, lecturing and publishing is related to Canadian art and culture. Among the exhibitions he has organized are: David Milne: The New York Years; Gasoline, Oil and Paper: The 1930s Oil-on-Paper Paintings of Emily Carr (with David Alexander); Capitalizing the Scenery; and Roy Kiyooka: The Hoarfrost Paintings. In 1994, he co–founded the Vancouver Art Forum Society, which until 2002 published Collapse, a journal of which he was editor. In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2011, he received the Thakore Award in Human Rights and Peace Studies from Simon Fraser University and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
Additional biography: Canadian Who’s Who