Fellows in Residence, 2010-2011

Prudence Ahrens

Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Queensland

Traveling Modernisms: American Art and the South Pacific

Modernism is generally considered a transatlantic movement, however, networks of modernity also connected the various peoples of the Pacific, Australia, and North America as new means of transportation, distribution, and communication developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As modernity traversed the Pacific, modern means of representation and reproduction affected cultural encounters. This project interrogates how networks of modernity shaped a re-imagining of the Pacific Islands in American visual culture. It is the first focused analysis of American painting, photography, and printed ephemera that picture the South Pacific Islands in terms of urbanization, industry, and cultural modernity. In addition to the representation of modern subjects, this project questions how modernist aesthetics, for example, the “flatness” of modern painting or the New Objectivity of modern photography, compounds the perception of modernity in the islands. The research findings will provide a new account of Pacific cultural history that redirects focus from discourses of exoticism and primitivism to the impact of colonial modernity on visual representations of the region.

Lacey Baradel

Wyeth Foundation Predoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

Destabilizing American Regional Identities: The Slippery Signification and Interpretation of Place in the Visual Arts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, uncertainty about the fixity of regional and national identities developed in response to rapid modernization. Space-shaping events such as the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, and the mass arrival of immigrants during the early twentieth century placed further pressure upon notions of secure regional or national identities. With these rapid alterations, contemporary imagery began to probe the reliability of a visual language of place and reveal how complicated reading “region” into a work of art can be. The visual evidence might evoke multiple regions simultaneously or lead diverse viewers to reach contradictory conclusions when locating the scene. These confusions were rarely meaningless, and careful, critical attention to the ambiguity in these works helps us to understand how regional identities become less certain in the hands of artists, audiences, or both. This dissertation builds upon previous work on regional identity in American art but offers a new framework for exploring how visual evidence helps blur regional distinctions.

My study focuses on three interregional case studies: domestic genre painting produced during the turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Eastman Johnson and his contemporaries; instances of regional slippage at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with a focus on the reception of Thomas Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties (1890); and the intersection of regional identities in the emerging medium of film during the early twentieth century, using D.W. Griffith’s landmark work The Birth of a Nation (1915) as a point of departure. Uniting these diverse case studies raises new questions: What are the reasons for regional misalignments and how do they operate in works of art? Is there a connection between these slippages in signification and the works’ domestic settings? How do the questions shift as we move between visual media? By addressing these issues, my dissertation will reconceptualize the construction of American regional identities and the important role images play in their signification and constitution.

Maggie Cao

Predoctoral Fellow, Harvard University 

Landscape Interrupted: The Emergence of Zoological Agency in Nineteenth-Century American Art

My dissertation explores the role of the animal as a figure of intervention in the American landscape tradition. I focus on the understudied decline in the national landscape art, which, embodied in large-scale paintings by Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, reached its height in the mid-nineteenth century. I propose that the moment of landscape’s decline can best be illuminated through the study of a new kind of body that became intertwined with landscape production: the animal. I have identified several artists, namely Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Eadweard Muybridge, and Abbott Handerson Thayer, for whom the animal became a new and crucial “figure in the landscape.” In sustained projects by each of these artists, the animal served to express doubt about landscape art’s nationalist claims and the pictorial conventions underlying those claims, thereby opening that genre to modernist possibilities in unexpected ways. In studying the work of these artists in the context of popular science at the end of the nineteenth century, I turn away from anthropomorphic interpretations of animals in art. Instead, I attend to the represented animals’ pictorial functions as “interrupting” figures and as modernist tools for constructing non-allegorical space. Utilizing animal studies theory, my work attempts to address the reasons for the emergence of this new form of non-human agency. I aim to understand why the animal subject in this period became crucial for rethinking landscape art and a new site for negotiating artistic modernity.

Bridget Gilman

Sara Roby Predoctoral Fellow in Twentieth-Century American Realism, University of Michigan

Re-Envisioning Everyday Spaces: Photorealism in the San Francisco Bay Area

This project considers the critical relationship between photography, painting, and place, utilizing the work of the Bay Area Photorealists as its primary subject. My aim is to more fully articulate the implications of photo-based painterly practice—a style that has been largely critically disvalued—through an examination of both the evolution of inter-media relationships and the connection between realist painting and the American landscape. Looking closely at the work of Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, and Richard McLean, I will consider how these three artists were shaped by and responded to their Bay Area locale, both in terms of native aesthetic influences and the social and economic milieus of postwar California. Their sustained attention to life in the city, suburb, small town, and “rural fringe” offers the chance to explore the cultural impact of transformations in the built environment and American lifestyles. In addition, the trio’s shared pioneering of a new form of image making, one that mediates the world through the palimpsestic use of multiple media, offers a vital case study of how modern-day image consumption has affected perception of our everyday surroundings. Bringing together these elements of shifting aesthetic and social terrains will help to build a comprehensive view of the development of realist painting and its relationship to place in the late twentieth century.

Camara Holloway

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Delaware

Shadowing the Light: Race, Photography, and the Modernist Persona in America

Shadowing the Light: Race, Photography and the Modernist Persona in America explores the connections between race and modernism in photographic portraiture of American Moderns. Examining the work of Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), Doris Ulmann (1882–1934), and Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), this project illustrates how the reevaluation of African American culture and the currency of a redefined blackness played pivotal roles in the construction of identity and the articulation of an explicitly American version of modernism. The three photographers under consideration and a significant number of their sitters drew upon African American life in order to produce what would become the definitive works of American modernism. This project will demonstrate how photography served as an allegory for the role that race played in the construction of the American subject and thereby functioned as a visual technology suited to modernist self-fashioning. The interplay between black and white and light and shadow inherent to the medium provided the formal language to articulate a modernist aesthetic that simultaneously incorporated America’s peculiar means of identity formation. This interrogation of the mechanics of race within the visual field expands our knowledge about the interracial dynamics shaping the cultural imagination of this era.

Elizabeth Lee

 Senior Fellow, Dickinson College

Therapeutic Culture: Health and Illness in Turn-of-the-Century American Art

My book, Therapeutic Culture: Health and Illness in Turn-of-the-Century American Art, examines the relationship between late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American art and health, disease, and illness. It focuses on a group of figurative artists—Abbott Thayer, George de Forest Brush, Thomas Dewing, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens—whose interest in the body is typically attributed to their training in anatomy and the classical tradition in European academies of art. My research, however, shows that the figure also appealed to these artists because of the ways in which it resonated with a growing emphasis in American culture on physical fitness and health. Whether through the revival of the Olympics in 1896, a new emphasis on calisthenics and daily exercise, or dress reformers who insisted that women abandon their corsets for looser, ancient-style garments, the classical body was never far from view in turn-of-the-century America. Indeed, as urban industrial living was increasingly linked to nervous disorders such as neurasthenia, the spread of germs, and the outbreak of epidemic disease, physical culture enthusiasts, doctors, and Progressive reformers vigorously promoted new regimes of health.

My research analyzes how this immersion in “therapeutic culture” informed artistic practice. For instance, in a 2004 article published by American Art, “Therapeutic Beauty: Abbott Thayer, Antimodernism and the Fear of Disease,” I argued that Thayer’s interest as a painter of angels and madonnas was linked to the illness and death of his first wife, Kate, from tuberculosis. I tried to show that following her diagnosis in 1888, Thayer sought to protect himself and his three young children from illness by retreating to rural Dublin, New Hampshire, where they adopted a therapeutic, outdoors-oriented life that emphasized exercise, fresh mountain air, a healthy diet, and hygienic clothing, similar to the “fresh-air” routine then prescribed to sanatorium patients suffering from tuberculosis. Paintings by Thayer of his children with bare feet, ruddy cheeks, and “healthy” loose-fitting gowns attest to the family’s commitment to wholesome living in a therapeutic environment.

Sara Beth Levavy

Predoctoral Fellow, Stanford University

Immediate Mediation: A Narrative of the Newsreel and the Film

Immediate Mediation uses the cinema to understand how a seemingly ephemeral (and disposable) variety of film—the interwar American newsreel—actually functioned as a sustained attempt by studios to engage their audience in contemporary historical narrative. Over the course of four chapters, I consider the newsreel’s role in the earlytwentieth-century American media and industrial landscape, its relation to the history of film, its embodiment of a unique compilation narrative style, and its position as a cultural historical tool. I argue that this compilation film is a type of cinema through which Hollywood interacted with multiple means of storytelling, history, mass media, and the national imagination. The newsreel embodies the idea of journalism combined with the fantastical realm of the cinema experience, a blend that transforms the newsreel into a peculiar variety of film that is not easily qualified as news and cannot simply be considered entertainment.

The newsreel is a compilation film that takes its cues from a range of media to construct its deceptively simple conceit: a quick jaunt through local, national, and international events. These films occupy a singular space in the history of film (and in filming history). Seeing them as part of the cinema and media landscape will highlight their hybrid status as objects in modern American industrial culture and their long neglected relationship to the broader cinema experience. Drawing from archival sources and incorporating works of historical literature, film theory and historiography, narrative theory, and nonfiction film texts, the project will contribute a new understanding of the newsreel’s singular narrative style and its role in creating a cinematic vernacular.

Elizabeth McGoey

Predoctoral Fellow, Indiana University

Staging Modern Domesticity: Art and Constructed Interior Displays in America, 1925–40

This study examines domestic design and the interrelationships between the decorative arts and crafts and fine arts in staged interior displays during the interwar period in the United States (ca. 1925–1940). During the early twentieth century, a new language of abstraction emerged in the world of fine art, sparking an aesthetic shift that shocked the American public with its sharply fragmented forms and dissolution of recognizable representation. By the 1920s, these modernist forms moved off the walls of museums and galleries and into living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. Artists, designers, and consumers began to align modern art and modern design, exploring relationships between the fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, with the decorative arts, such as furniture and craft objects. Influenced by early-twentieth-century European examples of holistic interior design, and propelled by the mounting enthusiasm for modernist aesthetics, Americans embraced the practice of staging stylistically harmonious works of fine and decorative arts in fictional interiors. This practice spread into mercantile as well as cultural displays staged for a viewing public in varying manifestations: at world’s fairs, in department store exhibitions, on cinematic sets, and in museum period rooms. I examine these publicly staged interiors as sites intended to cultivate a desire for a modern lifestyle and where, to this end, the fine arts were employed as objects of “cultural capital” symbolizing the new and the now. These interiors indicated the desirability of a modern home—complete with the multitude of aesthetic trappings within it—by drawing on the cultural legitimacy afforded by modern art.

Emily Moore

Predoctoral Fellow, University of California, Berkeley

Indian Art of the New Deal, Indians in New Deal Art

Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed Tlingit and Haida Natives to establish seven “totem parks” in Southeast Alaska. In an attempt to develop a thriving contemporary market for Native American art, the CCC totem parks participated in a larger effort of the Indian New Deal to bridge “the Native” with “the modern,” recasting the Indian in popular perception from a member of a vanishing race to a modern American citizen whose traditions offered the U.S. a distinctive cultural heritage. Yet there is little scholarship that gauges whether popular conceptions of Native Americans actually shifted during the New Deal; there is also a lack of scholarship that situates Native art programs within the larger context of New Deal art.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s rich collections of New Deal art offer the opportunity to consider how artists across the country conceived of Native Americans in local portrayals of American history, and to evaluate how arts of the Indian New Deal squared with Indians portrayed in New Deal art. I am particularly interested in several dozen representations of Native Americans in New Deal mural studies made by nonNative artists for U.S. post offices, studies which range from Lee Gatch’s Squaw’s Rest (1941) for the post office in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, to Boris Deutsch’s Indian Bear Dance (1940) for Hot Springs, New Mexico. As art sponsored by the Section of Painting and Sculpture for public buildings, these post office mural studies suggest the ways in which non-Natives figured Native Americans in local narratives of American history and heritage—a cross-cultural “imagining” of Native peoples that provides an important counterweight to my research on the Indian New Deal.

Outside American Art’s collections, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) offers important collections for my research on early-twentieth-century Native art. Numerous Tlingit and Haida carvings of the 1920s and 1930s can reveal characteristics of these carving styles, styles that informed the restorations of totem poles for the New Deal totem parks. Early-twentieth-century Native art has traditionally been ignored by art historians; there is much work to do to begin to identify characteristics of carving from this period and its relationship to nineteenth-century “classicism.” NMAI also contains collections from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), the branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs established during the New Deal to develop markets for Native American art. The IACB played a key role in the New Deal totem parks; their sponsorship of other “preservation” programs for Native American arts provides important comparisons for my research on the preservation of totem poles in parks.

Márton Orosz

Terra Foundation for American Art Predoctoral Fellow, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest

György Kepes: His Period and Contacts within the United States in Postwar Art

György Kepes was not only an artist, but someone whose work spans many fields. The diversity of his work and spheres of influence may be the reason why a proper and comprehensive monograph that examines Kepes’s life and achievements has not yet been written. My dissertation—a comprehensive biography that will be translated from Hungarian into English—aims to examine the artist’s exciting and animated life through narratives. These narratives are based on interviews and archived material, alongside a more chronological and analytical study of his key works.

Kepes’s observations related to light (especially those in his unpublished Light Book) serve as a concrete explanation of his fascination with kineticism, which led him to drift away from the formal realm of panel pictures towards a “moving light-art.”

Another aspect of my work will reveal Kepes’s connection to science, which has a strong presence in his artwork. My research seeks to address the ways in which the iconography of Kepes’s art was influenced by the scientists and engineers with whom he became acquainted during his life. Continuous discourse with these figures played an important role in the implementation of his urban-scale installations. Furthermore, the very role of the institute Kepes founded, the Center of Advanced Visual Studies at the MIT, was to foster interaction between the world of art and the disciplines of science and technology.

One of the most important chapters of my dissertation will examine Kepes’s influence on the art world from the 1950s to the1960’s, and will present Kepes’s pedagogy as revealed in his university lectures that were delivered in the United States and abroad, and which remain influential today. These may be fairly well reconstructed through archived documents and audio tapes.

Gisela Parak

Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich

Landscape Narratives: German and American Photographs in Comparison, 1850–1933

In my research, I explore nineteenth-century landscape photography in Germany and the United States from a comparative perspective. Whereas landscape images and photographs in the U.S., in most cases, reflect the narrative of Manifest Destiny and refer to the idea of wilderness as untamed nature, the situation is more complex in Germany. A comparison will help to identify both the differences between the two cultural and national sites of visual production and moments of transnational exchange.

l sites of visual production and moments of transnational exchange. With the rise of photography, the orientation and intention of landscape images expanded and diversified. Unlike painting, which often reflected ideas of the beautiful and the sublime, photography was open to a more profane understanding of landscape. Images now included railways, bridges, water treatment plants, and housing developments.

In my study, I will organize the photographic landscape into five corresponding chapters: nationalist images, touristic landscapes, geographical landscape depictions, historic landscapes, and landscapes of industrial progress. Each of these categories, I argue, uses a rhetorical framework or a specific landscape narrative. Such narratives are informed by the context or purpose for which the image was used. Although there are the well-known narratives of American wilderness and the New West, I argue that the actual use of photographic landscape images and the different contexts in which they were distributed are often overlooked. Photographic landscape images were instrumentalized for many more uses than those generally taken into account. My research seeks to improve our understanding of nineteenth-century visual communication and the reception of photography at its first peak via a history of mass-distributed images and their interplay with social memory. Detailed analyses of the nationally determined utilization of the images, their international exchange, and their technological requirements will be the foundations of the book.

Austin Porter

Sara Roby Predoctoral Fellow in Twentieth-Century American Realism, Boston University

Paper Bullets: The Visual Culture of American World War II Print Propaganda

My dissertation examines the dynamic evolution in style and content of American print propaganda seen on the home front during World War II. I argue that as the war intensified the visual preferences of federal bureaucrats for propaganda became increasingly conservative, thus the abstracted modernism used by many progressive American artists during the 1930s was deemed less appropriate than a more comforting Saturday Evening Post sensibility. By synthesizing three interrelated forms of print propaganda—posters, cartoons, and magazine advertisements—my dissertation examines how American World War II propaganda avoided the horrors of war by conforming to an idealized commercial realism that later dominated Cold War-era advertising.

Breanne Robertson

Douglass Foundation Predoctoral Fellow, University of Maryland

Forging a New World Nationalism: Ancient Mexico in United States Art and Visual Culture, 1933–1945

The years between 1933 and 1945 witnessed a substantial reconfiguration of the ways U.S. citizens characterized the history and culture of ancient Mexico. Shifting interpretations owed much to concurrent changes in government policies regarding Latin American nations. In his inaugural address on March 3, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Good Neighbor Policy, hoping to rehabilitate imperialist images of the United States and to facilitate its economic recovery from the Great Depression. Roosevelt strategically framed his foreign policy initiatives intending to convince Americans, at home and abroad, to forge an international alliance that would safeguard the Western hemisphere from the mounting political and economic crises in Europe. As part of these efforts, the U.S. government encouraged pan-American solidarity by actively promoting pre-Columbian artifacts as evidence of a “shared” American heritage distinct from European culture. These historical circumstances altered earlier twentiethcentury American views of ancient Mexico as simultaneously a preindustrial paradise of noble savages and an uncivilized site of idolatry, revolution, and human sacrifice.

In this heady political and cultural climate, a number of visual artists working in the United States began to mine ancient Mexican art and culture for its rich rhetorical potential, addressing issues of religion, politics, and identity construction. My research posits a correlation between these artists’ appropriation of pre-Columbian themes and the international discourse of the Roosevelt administration. Through the careful consideration of six artworks (including one series), my dissertation elucidates the ways in which United States artists alternately internalized, personalized, and/or proselytized the government-sanctioned neocolonial discourse of the Good Neighbor Policy.

Susanne Scharf

Terra Foundation for American Art Predoctoral Fellow, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Art with an Agenda: Hugo Reisinger as Promoter of Transnational Cultural Exchange in the Early Twentieth Century

My dissertation project aims to improve the understanding of transnational cultural relations between Germany and the United States in the early twentieth century. While there had been close connections between the German and American art worlds during the nineteenth century, these connections wound down toward the end of the century. Fewer artists immigrated to the United States, while, at the same time, Germany became less and less important for American artists as a destination for academic training. Both circumstances led to an ebbing of the previous flow of knowledge of artistic techniques and imagery. Meanwhile, institutional as well as private engagement became all the more important. In order to examine the significance of these endeavors for transnational cultural exchange, my research will focus on the role of German-American businessman and art collector Hugo Reisinger as an intermediary between the United States and Germany in the realm of art. Well-known for his collection of American, German, and other European paintings and works on paper, Reisinger facilitated an active exchange in the fine arts between Germany and the United States by promoting exhibitions in the respective countries. I will examine how a collector with clout, a knowledge of art, economic means, and ties to political and cultural institutions was able to influence the perception of Germany’s cultural image in the U.S. and vice versa. Even though Reisinger exerted his influence during a period when artistic exchange waned, there was still considerable interest in cultural dialogue among political leaders and the general public. This exchange ended abruptly with the beginning of World War I, which strained German-American political, economic, and cultural relations at large. My goal is to reconstruct the complex German-American cultural exchange processes at the beginning of the twentieth century that so far have been largely neglected in the art-historical and Americanist discourse.

Hélène Valance

Terra Foundation for American Art Predoctoral Fellow, Université Paris VII- Diderot

Nocturnes in American Painting, 1890–1917

About twenty years after James McNeill Whistler reinvented moonlight painting with his Nocturnes, night paintings became a veritable vogue in the United States. A majority of artists, critics, and even art historians agreed to interpret nocturnes as paintings of poetry and mystery, detached from their more down-to-earth context. Yet nocturnes appear, in many ways, as anti-modernist reactions to the transformations of their times. I argue that the metaphor of night, repeatedly employed to approach topics as diverse as science, urban life, and the unconscious, enabled artists of the time to deal, albeit negatively, with unprecedented and disturbing realities.

With research in bacteriology, experiments with magnetism, and the discovery of X rays, boundaries between the visible and the invisible seemed increasingly blurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The attraction artists felt for barren and murky landscapes indicated their refusal to represent nature accurately, as science kept proving that visual perception was illusory and inadequate. As psychology and psychoanalysis began exploring the dark recesses of the mind, the monochrome and quasi-empty canvases of nocturnes were read as spaces of repose for the soul, the outside landscape acting as a mirror of the viewer’s interiority. At a time when the urban way of life became predominant, many painters manifested an escapist preference for idealized, quiet rural moonlights. Frederic Remington’s late nocturnes similarly evoked a vanished frontier, recasting the Old West into nostalgic, yet highly marketable, imagery. Winslow Homer’s Searchlight, Santiago de Cuba (1901) ambiguously reemployed rhetoric of light and darkness used to justify the United States’ new imperialism. From Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) to Ashcan school paintings of night-time street life, darkness served to highlight contrasts as well as to cover differences made visible by the arrival of ethnically diverse immigrants swelling into expanding cities.

If explored beyond the limits of surface description or artistic lineage and connected to its broader visual context, the nocturne can be revealed as a sort of negative image of the United States between 1890 and 1917. My intention is to show how, at the turn of the century, the visual metaphor of night acted as a buffer zone that both repressed and accommodated modernity.

Jennifer Way

Terra Foundation for American Art Senior Fellow, University of North Texas

Politics of the Handmade: The Significance of Southeast Asian Handicraft for America, circa 1955–61

This project explores the political and cultural role of handicrafts in U.S-Vietnam relations during a period marked by intensification in Cold War diplomacy—between the end of the first Indochina War, when the French departed Vietnam and the country divided, and the early 1960s, when the Vietnam War began. Specifically, my research looks at the U.S. State Department’s International Cooperation Administration’s handicraft program active in Southeast Asia from 1955 to 1961. The ICA promoted handicraft production as an export industry that would bring economic stability to the region. My research focuses on the non-governmental individuals—designers, craft experts, photographers, and artists—hired by the ICA to organize, manage, teach, photograph, film, exhibit, interpret, and publicize its handicraft program.

My research shows that American designers, craftsmen, and artists who worked for the ICA used examples of vanguard modern design and American craft, art and visual and material culture to facilitate Vietnamese handicraft production abroad and to promote its consumption by Americans, including those in the trade and business sectors, designers and artists, upscale department stores, the middle classes, and even tourists in Saigon. The project seeks to demonstrate how, in the ways they used contemporary design, craft, and art in the service of handicraft, individuals affiliated with the ICA allayed American anxieties about Southeast Asia by bringing Vietnam into line with American culture, markets, and middle-class tastes. Interestingly, my research indicates that the handicraft program promoted the modern designer as the American cultural figure best equipped to integrate the administration, teaching, promotion, and interpretation of Southeast Asian handicraft. In addition, my project examines the iconography of images of Southeast Asian handicraft artisans in light of their subjects’ status as refugees from North Vietnam.

Amy Werbel

Senior Fellow, Saint Michael's College

American Visual Culture during the Reign of Anthony Comstock, 1872–1915

American Visual Culture during the Reign of Anthony Comstock, 1872–1915 examines the vast array of materials Comstock suppressed and destroyed as a Special Agent of the U.S. Postal Service and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and the influence of his raids and prosecutions on American society.

Although Comstock's censorship campaigns are little discussed in current art historical scholarship, they were enormously influential and hotly debated in their own time. As the nation’s first federally appointed censor, Comstock vigorously exercised the power to designate and destroy “obscene” materials, and then to prosecute those involved in their production and distribution. Over the course of four decades, Comstock’s censorious efforts had a chilling effect on a wide range of cultural endeavors. At the same time, however, he also spurred the production of provocative images that visibly opposed “Comstockism” and limits on sexual expression and free speech more generally. This combination of intended and unintended consequences of censorship illuminates not only cultural dynamics of the Victorian and early modern eras, but also social dynamics that persist today.


Mary Wood

Patricia and Phillip Frost Predoctoral Fellow, University of Delaware

Benjamin West’s Nelson Memorial: Neoclassical Sculpture and the Atlantic World circa 1812

This dissertation explores the manifold issues embedded within the Nelson pediment, a significant (though largely unstudied) object from Benjamin West’s oeuvre that lies at the nexus of many critical political, cultural, and economic impulses circa 1812. This project will expand upon previous scholarship by integrating West’s sculptures into a dialogue about transatlantic neoclassicism. Building outward from a close analysis of the pediment and its architectural site, my work will reposition Benjamin West and his work within both a local London nexus of sculpture, architecture, and space, as well as within a global, imperial context of British cultural, industrial, and political hegemony. Drawing on late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century materials concerning the Nelson pediment’s commission, ephemera regarding its reception, and paintings by Benjamin West and others, this dissertation will engage material and visual culture models to unpack the ideological density of West’s greatest sculpture. This project will contribute to studies in American art history by investigating how West applied his pedagogical methods and formal aesthetic principles to link classical antiquity and the modern notion of history painting via this complex object, in turn affecting the productive sensibilities of subsequent generations of American artists. In an important way, this pediment may also provide an inroad by which to reconsider the beginnings of an American sculptural tradition.

Other Smithsonian Fellowship Appointments in American Art

Meredith Brown

Predoctoral Fellow (at Archives of American Art), The Courtauld Institute of Art 

Feminist Spaces, Politics, and Programs: The Impact of A.I.R. Gallery on the Feminist and Alternative Art Movements in 1970s America

A.I.R. Gallery (Artist In Residence, Inc.), the earliest not-for-profit cooperative gallery for women artists in the United States, opened in downtown New York City in 1972. The space A.I.R. created allowed women artists to demonstrate leadership skills in the art world, exhibit professional and often radical work in a public setting, discuss questions of aesthetics and politics, and critically engage with issues central to the feminist movement and to contemporary avant-garde art practices in the United States.

My research explores the political, programmatic, and spatial aspects of the gallery and considers the impact of its aesthetic programs, artists’ practices, and critical reception on the histories of avant-garde and feminist art movements in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s. Through comparative studies to other cooperative and commercial galleries in downtown New York and to other feminist art spaces across the United States, my research examines the ways, particular to A.I.R., in which feminist and other activist strategies were incorporated into the gallery’s physical environment, mission, and programming to provide an institutional space for women artists. Exploring rare historical materials and artworks held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, my project will articulate the ways in which the gallery and its member artists shaped and were shaped by the artistic, political, and cultural climate of 1970s America.

Mazie Harris

Predoctoral Fellow (at National Portrait Gallery), Brown University

The Portraits and Patents of New York Photography Studios on Broadway, 1850–70

The shift from production of unique daguerreotype images to potentially reproducible negative-positive technologies entailed substantial commercial restructuring of the New York City photography industry. On a cultural level, the transition engendered changed aesthetic criteria for photography, modified rhetorical strategies for its promotion, and enabled new forms of photographic consumption. My project studies the implications of commercial studio procedures on everyday perceptions of the medium and its role in society. In outlining a history of American photography that situates studio and collecting practices within the larger fields of nineteenth-century graphic production and technological reproduction, I address a range of photographic manipulations before the lens, in the darkroom, and within the parlor. To account for the ways in which constructive practices of making and viewing portraits related to the fashioning of individual and group identities in the second half of the nineteenth century, my work charts resistance to negative-positive photographic processes in relation to the instability of paper currency in the free banking era, traces the importance of intellectual property disputes on the development of photography in the United States, and seeks to account for the prevalence of selective development, painted backdrops, and other strategies employed to temper the mechanistic capacity of the medium.

Kim Sels

Predoctoral Fellow (at National Portrait Gallery), Rutgers University

Assembling Identity: The Object-Portrait in American Art, 1917–27

How can something as tangible and material as an assemblage of everyday objects represent something as intangible and immaterial as the identity of a human being? Yet object-portraits created in America from 1917 to 1927 do just this. In an object-portrait, the artist replaces a likeness of the subject’s body with a collection of objects as an abstract embodiment of the subject’s identity. My project explores what underlying anxieties about the nature of identity, the machine, consumer culture, and the project of art itself are revealed in the way in which these object-portraits juxtapose and transgress the boundaries between human and thing.

In bringing together art history, material culture studies, and cultural history, my interdisciplinary approach will add a new and different voice to the growing interest in the field of non-mimetic portraiture. With this approach, I hope to suggest new ways in which these object-portraits participate in and articulate changing notions of the subjectobject relationship and modern subjective experience at the dawn of modern America.