Lee Ann Custer
Urban Voids: Picturing Light, Air, and Negative Space in New York, 1890–1930
In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York City, “urban voids”—interstitial spaces in the city—were as significant as built forms. While studies of New York during this period tend to highlight its extreme density, period texts reveal efforts to regulate building growth and to preserve natural light and air—precious elements in the gritty urban environment. Modern American painters recorded the lived experience of the residual spaces that these constraints produced—authorless voids that could not be captured by traditional forms of depicting the city, such as maps, aerial views, and architectural renderings of single buildings. Through four case studies of the work of George Bellows, John Sloan, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Aaron Douglas, I argue that these highly contested spaces offered opportunities for artists to deploy innovative approaches to form, subject matter, and style, and to convey the socio-political implications of new spatial conditions in the city. By considering Ashcan, avant-garde, and Harlem Renaissance artists, the project looks comprehensively at American modernism’s response to urban space and documents a countercurrent to the long-held narrative in which early modernist art inevitably culminates in abstraction.
The Mural at a Crossroads: The Paris International Exposition of 1937
The Paris Exposition internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life) of 1937 is perhaps the most striking manifestation of the dramatic increase in mural production across the Americas, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Through an analysis of the work of such diverse artists as Eduard Buk Ulreich (United States), Alfonso Xavier Peña (Mexico), Aleksandr Deineka (Soviet Union), and Sonia Delaunay (France), this project brings to light the conversations about public art in which these artists took part and demonstrates the importance of the mural for the governments who commissioned their work. Government representatives in the United States, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and France—aware of one another’s efforts—oversaw large-scale programs of mural production during the 1930s as a means of raising morale, creating solidarity, and providing social support for artists in the context of global economic depression and dramatic political shifts. A key aspect of the mural exhibition program with which this project contends is its remarkable stylistic heterogeneity, a quality that helps to expand traditional, teleological understandings of modernism. Significantly, stylistic differences did not conform to geographic boundaries, a fact explained in part by the transnational practices of the artists who created the murals and who traveled widely and looked to the work of mural artists in other locations. A focus on these murals allows for a first-time opportunity to highlight the cosmopolitan dimensions of the exhibition, rather than the nationalist aspects that have been emphasized in the past. More broadly, in contrast to previous, geographically constrained accounts of muralism in the 1930s, this project opens the mural to truly transnational readings.
Christine Renee Garnier
Amalgamating the West during the American Silver Age
From eastern mints to western frontiers and from remote mines to international exhibitions, silver quickly flowed between hands and landscapes during the Silver Age, a moment during the rise and fall of silver mining in the American West during the second half of the nineteenth century (ca. 1848–1905). This movement knitted together opposing notions of space and identity, including the fraught authenticity of the sculpted indigenous body and industrial machine epitomized in silver-based photography. While historians have chronicled financial and design histories of the metal separately, the broader social and imperial significance of silver and its movements in this historical moment has received little scholarly attention. Yet, silver had operated as a medium to explore metaphors developed around material, social, and racial amalgamation since the initial colonization of the Americas. Silver’s technological frontiers continuously linked active landscapes of contested indigenous sovereignty with industries of luxury and aesthetic value, often producing objects that formally and materially challenged the very notion of the frontier in the United States.
Drawing on emerging dialogs in American art on ecology and community, this dissertation project considers how the physical and symbolic properties of silver were linked to debates on resource speculation and indigenous sovereignty during the rise of silver mining and bimetallism in the United States. I examine the historical arc of the mining boom through four case studies: silver peace medals issued for land treatises with Native American nations, Timothy O’Sullivan’s mining photographs of the Comstock Lode in 1868, Meriden Britannia Company’s silver-plated sculpture The Buffalo Hunt for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and photographs of Navajo (Diné) silversmiths at the end of the century. The formal and material qualities of these diverse case studies reveal shifting aesthetic concerns around power, industry, and landscape from numerous perspectives in the American West.
Faye Raquel Gleisser
Guerrilla Tactics: Art and the Cultural Domestication of Militancy in America, 1967–87
“Guerrilla Tactics” examines the cultural domestication of militancy in North America during the 1970s and 1980s to offer a new historical narrative for U.S.-based artists’ deployment of low-tech tactics of intervention during this period. Through four chapters, I cross-analyze instances of media hijacking, misinformation, hostage-taking, and clandestine practices in conceptualism and performance art staged by Adrian Piper, Chris Burden, Pope.L, Tehching Hsieh, and the art collectives Asco and Guerrilla Art Action Group. My book argues that these artists participated in the wider roster of varied cultural practices that “brought home” the mythology of “Third World” insurgency in the U.S. between 1967 and 1987. During the period that I call the decades of the domestication of the militant—framed by Che Guevara’s death in 1967 and his rise to mythic status, and the development of “guerrilla marketing” in the mid-1980s—the glamorization of a mobile, partially-visible militant in American film, protest culture, and fashion provides an understudied context in which to situate artists’ inculcation of an emergent guerrilla imaginary. Amidst the increasing visibility of militant subjects and the simultaneous containment of militant actions, I contend that the phenomenon of guerrilla tactics in art was forged by shifting ideas of lawlessness and resourcefulness, and by artists’ own awareness of their status in a society ordered by patriarchal whiteness and abelism. Such a history of tactics reveals how racial, gender, and class bias enabled the artworks and shaped their reception; it also makes clearer how the legacies of low-tech intervention, which limn our contemporary assessments of endurance and creativity in art, sustain Cold War–era notions of citizenship, civility, and personhood in the present. In so doing, the book posits an expanded notion of what constituted the “political” during the 1970s and ’80s, and addresses how coded ideas of risk-taking continue to influence American history and cultural experience today.
Fluxus and the Material Legacy of Intermediality
This project examines the lives and afterlives of Fluxus objects, events, and ephemera as seen through the collection of materials in the Nam June Paik Archive at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Fluxus transformed irrevocably the landscape of artistic practice and challenged the dominant preconception of artwork as something that endures unchanged. While many histories of the post-war avant-garde focus on the implications of the nascent conceptualism and performativity for other artistic genres, this project considers the fundamentally material aspects of forms initially not destined for perpetuation. Building on many years of study of Paik as a Fluxus participant and one of the most prolific artists of the past century, I trace the material and conceptual transformations of Fluxus in the 1960s–70s. Through the lens of art history, conservation, and media and performance studies, I examine the coexistence of ephemerality and materiality in Fluxus. I am interested in the materialisation and mutability of Fluxus intermedia, and how change affects the shifting interpretation of their meaning. Rather than focusing on Fluxus intermedia as extant in-between media categories, I investigate the (in-between) state of transition in Fluxus works with potential implications for how we conceive of artworks in general.
Before the Iron Curtain: Margaret Bourke-White’s Early Soviet Photographs
In 1930, the young American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) traveled to the Soviet Union on her first trip abroad. Her auspicious visit occurred during a moment of improving Soviet-American relations and increased experimentation with photography as a mass medium. Despite her self-proclaimed ignorance of Russia, Bourke-White capitalized on these favorable conditions and created a suite of images that would be published and exhibited extensively, propelling her rise to stardom as America’s most famous female photojournalist of the twentieth century.
This dissertation examines the creation and afterlife of Bourke-White’s Russian photographs. I compare a set of diverse venues that displayed her work, from Bourke-White’s first book, Eyes on Russia (1931), to Soviet propaganda magazines (1930–1934), to a set of photomurals in the Soviet consulate in New York City (1934). I situate these photographs between the American traditions of documentary photography and commercial photography, on one hand, and their supposed political and stylistic opposites of the Russian Avant-Garde and Socialist Realism on the other. This survey reveals how Bourke-White’s striving for stylistic innovation and political neutrality left her photographs open to a wide variety of interpretations as they traversed disparate ideological and aesthetic contexts.
Antarctic Encounters: Perceiving Ecological Change in Frank Wilbert Stokes’s Landscapes
In 1902, American artist Frank Wilbert Stokes embarked on his third voyage to polar regions, this time to the Antarctic. The motivations for the expedition that he joined proved to be particularly complex when its leader, Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjöld, revolutionized the understanding of the region’s climate and ecology at the same time that his captain, Carl Anton Larsen, established the first Antarctic shore station for the whaling industry. While the first accomplishment deepened our current understanding of the region’s biodiversity, the latter developed an industry that was dependent upon its disruption. In perceiving the Antarctic landscape as a potential resource for economic gain, this expedition subjugated polar ecologies to the environmentally destructive practices of human industry precisely when the scientific understanding of the region’s ecological history had just begun. By linking Frank Wilbert Stokes’s work to that of the expedition’s, I argue that his Antarctic landscapes, particularly those that include the region’s wildlife, display the entangled and often contradictory ambitions of scientific exploration and industrial development. A particular painting by Stokes, titled Emperor Penguin, Admiralty Inlet Snow Hill, Antarctic (n.d.), offers an elevated and romanticized depiction of the species that perhaps indicates the work’s position as an homage to Nordenskjöld’s celebrated discovery of ancient penguin fossils. However, it also serves as a statement of environmental change. Located between the viewer and the expanse of ocean in the background, the emperor penguin is represented literally cornered within the composition, standing as a witness to the shifting dynamics between the Antarctic and the global pursuits of science and industry. Using an ecocritical methodology, I will position Stokes’s work in its social, economic, and environmental context in order to articulate the romantic and nationalist perceptions that were held in the global race to investigate this allegedly unexplored frontier. My research will bridge the boundary between the work of an artist from the United States and the global dynamics in which he took part, as well as between the past and the present. In employing a contemporary ecocritical lens, my project will consider the ways in which Stokes’s depictions of polar landscapes at the turn of the twentieth century prefigure the current critically-endangered condition of both Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems.
Packaging Environments: The Art and Design of the Container Corporation of America
Focussing on the art and design programs of the Container Corporation of America (CCA) from the late 1930s to 1970, my project at SAAM tracks the conceptualization and employment of the terms “environment” and “ecology” across both the corporate and artistic practices of the company. In examining the cultural programs of the CCA, my project asks what the stakes are in turning to the “environmental” and “ecological” in artistic and corporate methods, and concurrently why this became such a prevalent method within this context. I argue that both the artists and corporate actors were invested in developing “ecological” approaches informed by biological theory, that expanded into a collaborative enterprise centred around ideas about the environment. I further situate this interest in environment and ecology within a burgeoning military-industrial-cultural complex at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War in the United States. In this context, I consider how the term “environment” becomes a concept used to signify the ability to administrate, represent, and mobilize territory, using art and design as a key medium to construct and communicate space.
Tracing the history of the CCA through the lens of the environment further contributes to our understanding not only of artists such as László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, but also how these artistic practices aligned, diverged, and melded with industry in the United States. Unpacking the specificities of this relationship can help ask other important questions, including how these kinds of partnerships are embedded in geo-political issues related to resource extraction, colonialism, and understandings of the natural world.
Post-translational Belonging: The Languages of the Future in Transnational New Media Art After 1984
This dissertation project offers a region-specific account of how transnational new media art created after Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s first satellite project, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), gestures toward the shaping of global sites of intimacy not reliant on a shared language. A hypnotic array of synthesized images, electronic sound, human bodies, and nonverbal actions presented an entirely new form of interactive experience in Paik’s satellite trilogy in the mid-1980s. I demonstrate that Paik’s three operational strategies in this series—transnational experiment, transprofessional collaboration, and collective spectatorship—are tactically employed by the later generation of East Asian new media artists. By embracing the idea of the post-translational and the practice of the transnational as methodological strategies, this dissertation prompts a necessary rethinking of the hegemony of language-based communication.
Opened with Paik’s performance bidding farewell to George Orwell’s dystopian vision of technology, the year 1984 in my study marks the shaping moment for transnational new media arts and theories that materialize a desire for new modes of global communication. I first investigate the ways in which Paik’s satellite events developed new media art space as a dynamic site of community building beyond the geopolitical hierarchies of languages. The second part then turns to case studies on how six contemporary artists—Fujihata Masaki, Xu Bing, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, dumb type, Manabe Daito, and MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho—present scenarios of the act of language translation, where the existing criteria, hierarchies, and prejudices embedded in conventional language systems are destabilized or even deactivated. Three main directions for such an endeavor include the sensorial reformulation of the technologies of reading, the extension of bodily surfaces as communicative interfaces, and the reconception of collectivity through technological rhetoric of the imaginary future. I call this utopian striving “the languages of the future” and argue that this positing of a post-translational horizon is essential to understanding contemporary new media art’s worldmaking aims under digital globalization.
‘A Sort of Picture Gallery’: The Visual Culture of Antebellum America
My dissertation examines the “picture gallery” as a conceptual framework for understanding popular forms of antebellum visual culture such as gift books, fine illustrated volumes, subscription prints, and periodicals. I draw on abolitionist author and orator Frederick Douglass’s idea of the “soul of man” as “a sort of picture gallery,” which he articulated in various lectures on pictures, as a period theorization of the picture gallery outside of the physical walls of an architectural space and closely aligned with the interior of the individual. Taking the proliferation of physical picture galleries in the early nineteenth-century United States as a point of departure, I explore how antebellum Americans engaged with revised forms of such spaces through reproductions of works of art. I ask how these reproductions constituted personal picture galleries that conditioned the kind of inward-facing “self revelation” that Douglass thought pictures could stimulate in order to perpetuate moral, social, and political progress. My dissertation explores four central case studies of the expanded picture gallery that span the 1830s through the early 1860s: Edward L. Carey’s gift book series, The Gift (1835–1845), Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1837–1844), the American Art-Union’s subscription prints and other distributed reproductions (1839–1852), and William “Ethiop” Wilson’s serial article, “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859), together with early issues of Harper’s Weekly (est. 1857). By examining how the concept of the picture gallery structured the making and viewing of these various forms of visual culture, my dissertation offers a new means of understanding the role of art in brokering the relationship between the individual and the nation in antebellum America.
Ana Cristina Perry
Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Alternative Spaces, 1966–1972: From Repulsion to Exaltation
My dissertation examines Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s artistic and curatorial projects from 1966 to 1972. I argue that he developed these works to provoke emotional responses as a strategy of institutional critique and in response to the racial and economic inequities that he witnessed throughout New York City. Ortiz wrote about how institutional spaces suppressed emotion and affect by prioritizing “the passive aesthetic of the cerebral.” Ortiz instead sought to center the body and its physiological urge to act out in response to often challenging or contradictory emotions and feelings. My dissertation takes into account the dual audiences and communities Ortiz worked with from 1966 through 1972. I first focus on Ortiz’s participation in “white” vanguard art spaces: the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London and the Judson Memorial Church Gallery in New York (1967–1970). I position Ortiz as a central figure who not only employed strategies similar to those of his more well-known peers such as Allan Kaprow or Nam June Paik but also drew from his background as a Puerto Rican to deepen the political implications of the other artists’ work, and in so doing I expand our understanding of the downtown avant-garde. I also examine the projects Ortiz created with a broader network of educators, artists, and activists at the community-oriented Puerto Rican cultural space of El Museo del Barrio (1969–1972) and the 1971 landmark exhibit Boricua: Aquí y Allá (Boricua: Here and There) at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Through these projects, I demonstrate how Ortiz developed strategies of institutional critique with the downtown vanguard and employed these strategies to build a critical museum within an art world that remained hostile to Puerto Ricans in New York.
This fellowship received Federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
Ambassadors of Good Will: American Art in 1930s Europe
MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938: Building and Politicizing American Art
My book explores the Museum of Modern Art’s first international exhibition, Three Centuries of American Art (“Three Centuries”), as a complex material object displayed in Paris in 1938. With Three Centuries, the young museum laid out an authoritative and provocative vision of American art that contained over 500 architectural models, films, paintings, photographs, prints, watercolors, and folk artworks as well as interpretive documents, including film scripts, maps, and graphs dating from 1620 to 1938. The 320 years of art encapsulated within this international exhibition expressed a vision of American art and culture that was not simply the re-articulation of prior surveys but a new formulation, one that sought to stake a claim for American art as a diplomatic agent in the politically turbulent 1930s. By revealing a multifarious display that evoked a cultural plurality contingent on interwar politics, my analysis of Three Centuries nuances dominant art-historical scholarship on art and diplomacy, particularly scholarship on post–World War II exhibitions. My project examines the exhibition’s ontological boundaries and the mechanics of display in order to consider the internationalization of American art, modernism, politicized art, and the invention of cultural categories and artistic media. Through this process, my work excavates one of the seminal histories of modernism lost in the tumult of World War II. The exhibition’s dazzling display invites a fundamental question: How did Three Centuries capture the heterogeneous mix that was American culture in the 1930s and embody it to an international audience grappling with its own political instabilities? My project is not a study of exhibition practices more generally; rather, it explores the importance of framing the history of American art in international terms during the 1930s.
Form Unfollows Function: Subversions of Functionality in Modern Art
Krystle Elaine Stricklin
Grave Visions: Photography, Violence, and Death in the American Empire, 1898–1913
From 1898 to 1913, the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars brought a host of US servicemen, journalists, explorers, and photographers to the island shores of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Intervening in Cuba’s struggle for independence, the US achieved swift military victories in the Caribbean after which Spain ceded control of their long-held island territories, while a brutal guerilla war continued in the Philippines well into the twentieth century. During this time, the government and the popular press used photographs of violence and death to showcase the might of the American military and to bolster support for overseas expansionism. Macabre scenes of military executions, battlefield corpses, soldiers’ graves, and unearthed human bones appeared in books, magazines, and as postcards to be shared among citizens eager to learn about the new “Greater America,” as the country was being described by the press. While these public images had an overt propagandistic purpose, many private images of violence and death appeared in photo albums and scrapbooks created by men and women who were using photographs in highly subjective and dynamic ways to reconcile their personal experiences with state- and public-sponsored narratives of the wars.
A guiding goal of my research is to reevaluate the photographic record of the wars by considering these vernacular albums, which are tactile, intimate objects with dynamic arrangements of photographs and text, in context with the social and cultural significance of imperial violence and death. The dearth of scholarship on photo albums and scrapbooks belies the central roles these objects played in mediating wartime experiences at home and abroad. By investigating how these images and albums negotiated between private and public histories, this dissertation offers a new understanding of how photography served as the medium through which individuals came to understand and participate in America’s burgeoning empire. One of the main purposes of this study is to analyze how people adapted and experimented with established methods of album-making to generate their own means to contend with the unprecedented challenges of this war and to satisfy the human impulse to record, organize, and preserve our experiences.
Tropical Intransigents: Camille Pissarro and Francisco Oller in the Atlantic World, 1848–1898
Emerging like a powerful hurricane in the crucible of the Atlantic, forces of revolution transformed the cultural landscape of the nineteenth-century United States and its newly acquired territories in the Caribbean. From the bustling docks of Charlotte-Amalie in the US Virgin Islands to the grand boulevards of Paris, the “Age of Revolutions” produced transnational modes of artistic expression that can be found at the heart of the historical canon. Before the term “Impressionist” gained widespread currency, the Paris-based “Intransigents” were named for the radical character of their aesthetic innovation, innovations that were by no means contained within Paris alone. My project explores the work of Intransigent contemporaries Camille Pissarro (1830–1903, US Virgin Islands) and Francisco Oller (1833–1917, Puerto Rico) within the nexus of revolutions—social, political, and technological—that rocked the nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Existing literature on the Atlantic currents of Impressionism tends to treat figures like Pissarro and Oller monographically, skirting questions of global politics, diaspora, and creolization. By contrast, my project illuminates unexplored circuits of international artistic exchange, considering the work of Pissarro and Oller in the formative environments of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Under the supervision of my primary co-advisors E. Carmen Ramos and Eleanor Jones Harvey, the Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellowship Program will allow me to conduct research to advance my dissertation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for a period of twelve months. Using resources from the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History, I aim to introduce an Americanist perspective to the study of Impressionism and expand the presence of US “territories” like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the narrative of American Art.
Receiving the Global Modern: Private Politics of Interest in Postwar United States
This project looks at one of the first American collectors of Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian Modernist art, and the organizer and sponsor of several early Modernist exhibitions in the United States and Asia, including India’s first triennale of 1968, Abigail Weed Grey (1902–1983). Grey began her travels to Asia in 1960, when American collecting focuses were largely limited to traditional statuary and painting, and confined to diplomatic circles. Strategically using logistical and financial aid furnished by the United States Information Agency, a diplomatic wing formed under President Dwight Eisenhower to propagate American culture internationally during the Cold War, Grey returned to India, Pakistan, and Iran repeatedly, promoting her progressive and spiritually inflected agenda of creating “One World through Art.” Looking at the encounters of the pioneering collector with art circles in Iran, India, and Pakistan, I examine one “accidental ambassador’s” variegated agency in organizing a range of exhibitions in Asia and the United States. Her travels and introductions sponsored and facilitated by the United States Information Agency, Grey amassed one of the United States’ largest early collections of nonwestern Modernist art, providing unique insight into the historical circumstances within which certain brands of Modernism were read, courted, and collected in the post-war United States.
Little has been written to theorize the American patronage and exhibition of Iranian and South Asian Modernist art in the 1960s and 1970s, nor on the impact of Non-Aligned status—nations formally unallied with the United States and the Soviet governments, and eventually including India, Pakistan, and Iran—on American cultural diplomatic efforts. By examining Grey’s journey as an art collector as a conditional proposition—a personal mission enabled by emerging Cold War–era institutions and forming regional Modernist gallery scenes—this book sheds light on the imbrications of personal and institutional histories in the formation of collections of Modernist art. Furthermore, by offering a timely and gendered analysis of art collecting and art exhibition, I shed light on the particular conditions determining art collecting for women in the twentieth-century United States.
Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power
During my four-week fellowship, I plan to pursue two distinct, but related, research projects. Both are based in archival collections at the Smithsonian and grow out of my current book manuscript, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power.
The first project involves consulting the papers of Freda Diamond, designer for Libbey Glass Company, housed at the National Museum of American History to understand two aspects of Diamond’s work. First, I want to know more about how she understood the proliferation of specialized stemware forms in the glassware industry. Typical newlywed buying guides suggested a minimum of six different types of stemware, implying a standard of etiquette that few wives could hope to achieve. Diamond, however, encouraged housewives to use forms for multiple purposes, and she may have advocated for greater liberation and modernity of forms within the industry itself. Second, I am analyzing the narratives of racialized whiteness that appear in many of her decal decorations, and I want to learn more about the process for developing those motifs: did they originate in the factory or in her studio?
The second project is a study of the impact of Ebony magazine on the careers of African-American painters in the late 1950s, using collections at the Archives of American Art. While researching Chapter 2 of my book, which compares the presence of Modern design, art, and architecture in Ebony and Life magazines during the 1950s, I discovered a 1958 Ebony article that documents the up-and-coming generation of “Leading Young Artists.” I plan to conduct research in the AAA on the artists featured in this high-production article, which has several pages of color portraits of artists with their paintings. These artists include Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith, Paul F. Keene, Merton Simpson, and Norma Morgan. In keeping with Ebony’s editorial emphasis in the 1950s on individual achievement, the article claims that “[these] artists share in common a noticeable degree of emancipation from purely racial subject matter.” What impact (if any) did the Ebony article have on their careers? How did these artists conceptualize the role of race in their art in the 1950s, and did Ebony represent them appropriately? Finally, what is the place of abstraction in African American painterly practice at mid-century, according to both the article and the views of individual artists?
Olivia Kathleen Young
How the Black Body Bends: Sensorial Distortions of Black Contemporary Art
My research examines distortion in black feminist artwork from the 1960s to the present. “How the Black Body Bends” will be the first book-length scholarly text to foreground distortion as a central theme in the artwork itself, albeit one often overlooked in the scholarship on this work. While distortion is typically presented as a problem of representation, I contend that the black feminist artists in my study enact material, formal, and figurative distortions to expose the relationship between vision and other senses; by so doing, those artists reveal (and often subvert) important non-visual tactics of racial and gender objectification. I argue the artists in my dissertation use distortion to call attention to the contingent and non-visual ways one “sees” blackness, and, by extension, black women’s sentience and subjectivity. I offer an account of distortion as a black feminist artistic strategy and an analytic concerned with the epistemology of artistic meaning. Each chapter is thematically organized around a different sensory register in order to trace a lineage of the methods, materials, and forms of black feminist art. I engage sound in the video installations of Barbara McCullough (b. 1945), Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972), and Simone Leigh (b. 1968); proprioception, or spatial sensory awareness, in the work of Maren Hassinger (b. 1947), Senam Okudzeto (b.1972), and Tschabalala Self (b. 1990); and interoception, or the internal registers of the body, in the prints, sculptures, and paintings of Kay B. Brown (b. 1932), Beverly Buchanan (b. 1940), and Christina Quarles (b. 1985).
Paul Thek: Body Mass Index
This project aims to reassess Paul Thek’s sculptural work through the lens of what I call the “body index,” referring to art-making procedures that involve direct contact with the artist’s body through casting or imprinting. Thek’s sculpture of the 1960s, mimicking mutilated flesh, with all its interior muscles and sinews on display in shiny lifelike detail, stands out in a decade dominated, in retrospect, by the mute Minimalist cube. Discussions of Thek’s work often situate it within that narrative, as a critique of the cleanliness and “coldness” of advanced art of the 1960s, from Pop to Minimalism. Less remarked on is the fact that during that period, Thek experimented heavily with body casting, the process forming the basis of much of his sculptural output. Beyond the modernist framework of (anti-) Minimalism, I am interested in situating Thek within the longer of history of sculptural fragments and body parts casting, going back to ritualistic representation (using, in many cases, like Thek, wax): relics, votive objects, and ex-votos—all things with which Thek would have been familiar. While Thek’s faith (he was raised Catholic and remained devoted throughout his life) and the decisive encounter with the Catacombs in Palermo, Italy, early on in his artistic career are well known, the deeper resonances of cultural objects and their methods of making remain to be theorized within the realm of postwar American art.
With a focus on the body index, my research also opens up a new avenue of inquiry, not only into Thek’s oeuvre, but also into his peers’ practices, destabilizing, in particular, the previously separate categories of sculpture and print. The engagement with the imaging/copying of body parts—from hand, arm, leg, face, mouth, and teeth to genitalia—links together disparate but connected figures, such as Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, and Janine Antoni. Thinking about such methods sheds light on a key, yet often overlooked, artistic procedure of the twentieth century.
Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past: Race, Memorialization, Public Space, and Civic Engagement
My project focuses on how we visualize, interpret, and engage the slave past through contemporary monuments created for public spaces in the United States. I use the term “slave past” broadly to include the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, slavery, resistance, emancipation, and freedom. From Mississippi to Illinois to Rhode Island, governments (local, county, and state), colleges and universities, individuals, communities, and artists are in difficult conversations about how to acknowledge the legacy of the slave past and its visual representation for their towns, cities, states, and higher-educational institutions.
My research is predicated on the idea that the memorialization of the slave past is plural and multi-vocal. I examine twenty-five monuments in the South, Midwest, and Northeast that tell a diverse story about our contemporary engagement with the slave past. I arrange these monuments thematically into six digital case studies that include monuments to the Middle Passage and slavery, slavery and the university, resistance to enslavement, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, black soldiers and the Civil War, and emancipation and freedom. At the heart of “Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past” is a consideration of the interwoven nature of the social, the historical, and the spatial.
My approach is multipronged. I document how the objects are commissioned and how various constituencies determine how they should look. I analyze the visual language of the objects and the artists’ conceptualizations. Interpreting the various meanings of these monuments at the time that they were commissioned, I also evaluate the new meanings created over time that are often resistant to the original intentions and result in the transformation of public spaces. Lastly, I reflect on the concept of civic engagement and the role such monuments play in present-day conversations about race, history, and social justice.
Sculpting the Citizen Soldier: Reproduction and National Memory, 1865–1917
This dissertation examines the emergence of the citizen soldier monument in the decades following the Civil War: the proliferation of single figure statues, granite markers, obelisks, columns, and triumphal arches erected in honor of war veterans that appeared throughout American towns. A study of citizen soldier monuments presents the opportunity to understand the relationship between sculptural form and the formation of national memory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though these monuments were often criticized for their easy replicability and generic appearance, their very sameness may have been their most effective asset in connecting local traumas with national memory. The monuments examined in this dissertation include the early sculptural prototypes of James G. Batterson, Martin Milmore, and Randolph Rogers; the standardized output of foundries such as the McNeel Marble Works in Marietta, Georgia; Daniel Chester French’s Minuteman and the related phenomenon of Colonial Revival soldier monuments in connection with the nation’s centennial; and Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s Hiker, a Spanish-American War soldier monument so popular that it was reproduced nearly fifty times.
As my project will argue, the cities and small towns that built monuments to their citizen soldiers forged a connection between local loss and the broader national stage. The tall, straight specimens of white Victorian manhood rendered in granite and bronze encoded a battleground of ideas about why the Civil War was fought and how conflict should be remembered. Building on the scholarship of historians who have examined the Reconstruction era on a largely textual basis, I examine how the citizen soldier monument became one of the most important sculptural forms in the nineteenth century, and how sculpture’s unique ability to be copied became entwined with the monuments’ meaning.
Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Citizen Soldier
This book project examines monuments to the common Civil War soldier that have been damaged or altered since their dedication. These statues, obelisks, and columns were erected in towns and cities in the North and the South after the Civil War to honor the rank and file soldiers who died in the conflict. Since June 2015, Confederate monuments have been subject to acts of vandalism and calls for removal in an effort to reckon with America’s long history of racial injustice. This controversy has brought issues of permanence and preservation to the forefront, as many ask whether the monuments are worth saving, and whether the memorial landscape should ever be altered. But the history of the post–Civil war memory landscape has been marked not by consistency, but by constant modification. My book, which expands research that I first began to explore in my doctoral dissertation, will demonstrate this in the context of the long material history of Civil War citizen soldier monuments. In the 150 years since the end of the war, these monuments have been buffeted by the elements, bruised by vandals, shattered by automobiles, and moved or altered according to local needs. In probing four key alteration processes—accident, vandalism, revision, and neglect—my book will trace a path from the monuments’ material history to their divided present moment, and outline possible solutions for the current memorial conflict.
"Your Country? How Came it Yours?': Divergent Artistic and Political Claims for the "Soil" in America in the 1930s–1940s
This project analyzes how specific artists from different American identity groups conceptualized their relationship to the soil through art in the 1930s–1940s: the African American artist Horace Pippin, the Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, and the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Although the term “soil,” especially in the 1930s, is associated with mainstream nationalism, these artists rerouted these discourses to make their own political claims. Crucially, they did this by constructing the meaning of soil according to their specific histories, identities, and worldviews. In all three cases, the artists framed the American soil as the progenitor of their art production, while also using their art to shift the meaning, temporality, and boundaries of what constituted the American soil. This book will analyze both the different ways that artists and critics framed and employed the soil and the very different art that was produced by these claims, including pottery, paintings, murals, and photographs. More broadly, this research will put pressure on the construction and boundaries of the category of American art history to create a more expansive but also more complicated geographic and temporal framework. The book will examine the uses and depictions of the soil as a locus point for labor, gender, political, and ecological concerns in art and art history. Comparing these artists’ different strategies for relating to the soil is crucial for creating a deeper understanding of the American experience and valuing the way in which a range of different heritages have manifested and intersected in the United States.
Picturing the Civil War: Visual Culture of the Rank-and-File
My project is the first full-length study of Civil War soldiers’ wartime art. I chart a transformation in how soldiers used visual culture, even as the hostilities transformed visual technologies and as imagery transformed the public’s experience of the conflict itself. The soldiers’ production of images presented both an opportunity and a dilemma, forcing them to abandon existing artistic conventions in search of new ways to represent the war’s realities. Free from censorship, soldiers created art that often countered the proliferation of propagandistic images. Whereas the latter centered around the depiction of “Heroic War,” many soldiers produced works that focused on violence and tedium. As they fought their foes on the battlefield, soldiers also entered a cultural conflict with professional picture-makers over the war’s depiction.
Historians have published collections of soldiers’ artwork, but never before has there been a comprehensive study that synthesizes their wartime art to illustrate how they unknowingly contributed to the creation of an alternative illustrated history of the rebellion. This grassroots record ran parallel to the mainstream propagandistic narrative, offering new insights into how soldiers visualized the conflict in opposition to the themes exhibited in popular culture. Studies of Civil War imagery seldom acknowledge the testimonies of soldiers, whether focusing on the reception of the visual or its uses. Similarly, soldier studies rarely employ visual culture in their analytical framework. This study blends textual and visual records to elevate soldiers’ art from mere products of the historical moment, to emphatic statements about it. I marry the two fields of soldier studies and art history in order to analyze the ways in which those best poised to visualize the conflict experience did so in response to their lived realities.
J. V. Decemvirale
Knowing Your Place and Making Do: Radical Art Activism in Black and Latino Los Angeles, 1968 to the Present
Building on scholarship that expands the cultural topography of Los Angeles, this dissertation investigates a constellation of arts organizations founded and managed by people of color in the city from 1968 to the present. Working in the shadow of the city’s central cultural institutions, these arts associations and grassroots art spaces have formed the networks of apprenticeship, instruction, and affiliation for much of the black and Latino artistic production in Los Angeles. Protesting their exclusion from the city’s main museums, these organizations turned churches, houses, and hospitals into temporary exhibition spaces. Through community-oriented programming and exhibition making, they generated large membership constituencies and attracted audiences that reached into the thousands. By reformatting the dominant culture’s products, these groups made art applicable and meaningful to demographic groups that the museum as an institution continues to neglect, ignore, and misunderstand. Analyzed as a series of case studies, these arts organizations provide insights into the popular uses and rereadings of the spaces, frameworks, and alliances by which art has traditionally been activated, curated, exhibited, and received.
This fellowship received Federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.