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2016 Conference—Washington, DC

As an affiliated society of the College Art Association (CAA), the Association of Historians of American Art sponsors two sessions at the CAA annual conference: a one-and-a-half-hour professional session and a two-and-a-half-hour scholarly session. Below are details on the two AHAA-sponsored sessions. See also a list of CAA Sessions of Interest to Americanists.

Professional Session: Claiming the Unknown, the Forgotten, the Fallen, the Lost, and the Dispossessed 

College Art Association Annual Conference, February 3-6, 2016, Washington, DC

Chair: Robert Cozzolino, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 
Date and Time: Friday, February 5, 12:30 PM—2:00 PM
Room and Location: Salon 1, Lobby Level

Gertrude Abercrombie, Girl Searching, 1945. Oil on masonite, 20.32 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2011.1.82.

The public, funders, collectors, critics, your colleagues, and publishers adore famous names. You cannot make a successful project, educate, move merchandise, get media attention, or improve a collection without them. Right? Not so fast! Maybe there's another way to look at this. This session explores what can be gained in our American art ecosystem (teaching, publishing, collecting, curating, etc.) by embracing the overlooked, the dismissed, the forgotten, and the denigrated in art history. What accounts for the reputations of artists not integrated into the canon? What are the broader implications for reinforcing this treatment? Is it justified, is it unjust? This session will provide examples, musings, and case studies showing what happens when attention is shifted towards little-known artists or unpopular parts of famous artists’ careers rather than the dozen or so stars that seem ubiquitous in our American art landscape. Strongly encouraged: case studies, tales from the field, and other first-hand examples of what happened (or did not) when unlikely artists found a champion in you, a colleague, or institution. Has such a project affected your teaching? The way you hang your collection? Change the culture at your institution?

Expanding Instructional Resources: Toward an Inclusive American Art Survey
Sarah Beetham, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

I recently taught an undergraduate survey of American art with the goal of providing an expansive view beyond the traditional canon. However, I found that the available teaching and image resources were often inadequate in supporting this goal. Works by underrepresented artists, especially African-American and women artists, were often impossible to find. In this paper, I will explore ways in which to expand image resources for instructors in American art. One approach is to involve students in expanding the canon by making their research on marginalized artists available to the public through crowdsourcing projects such as those sponsored by Wikipedia, including WikiProject Public Art and WikiProject Women Artists. I will also examine ways in which instructors can work with museum professionals to build collections of digital resources. In exploring these strategies, I hope to offer a path toward a more inclusive American art survey.

Notes from New York: Names, Networks and Connectors in Art History
Susan Greenberg Fisher, The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation

This paper will share reflections and conclusions from my first-hand experience over the last six years of directing the Greenwich Village historic home, studio, and extensive art collection of American sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-91). I will consider the challenges and rewards of studying and promoting the work and collection of once-famous, and now under-recognized, twentieth-century American artists. It will examine our efforts to make Chaim Gross and his contemporaries relevant to a contemporary audience and consider our identity in relation to much larger neighbors in New York.  Through our insistence on the power and relevance of history and the archive I will argue for the value of connector-figures like Chaim Gross in the history of American art—people who linked large groups of artists and artists’ groups together. It will thus consider an art history of networks, and not proper names, embodied by Gross’s collection and historic home.

At the Margins: The Art of Josephine Tota
Jessica Marten, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester

Working quietly in her Rochester home, painter Josephine Tota (1911-1996) spent the later years of her life embarking on a creative journey of exorcism and acceptance. After decades of painting as a hobby, Tota was a septuagenarian when she made a body of work with intensely personal subject matter and a stream of creative, obsessive energy. Tota did not title her work, nor did she offer insight into their meaning. She left no personal papers—our knowledge of her life comes primarily from the accounts of family members. Her place within the history of art is not an easy fit; one might be tempted to call her a “compulsive visionary” but even that is imprecise.  This paper advocates dissolution of the insider/outsider duality and the integration and institutional sanctioning of artwork by outsiders. This paradigm shift towards boundary dissolution has started; it has begun to work to Tota’s advantage. 

Integrating Disruption: Acquiring the Philip J. and Suzanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art 1930-1970
M. Melissa Wolfe, St. Louis Art Museum

In 2005, the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, acquired the Phillip J. and Susanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art 1930-1970.  The collection, which comprises nearly 500 works, is acknowledged for its inclusion of well-known social realists such as Philip Evergood and Jacob Lawrence. However, the collection’s real strength rests in the depth of works by lesser known social realists, social surrealists, and magic realists such as Gertrude Abercrombie, Federico Castellon, Jared French, and Joseph Hirsch.  These artists challenge multiple narratives and demand recognition of marginalized artistic communities.  This paper will look at the financial, social, and intellectual strategies the museum developed to acquire the collection, as well as the directions it has taken to integrate the collection’s content into the its broader American collection. It will also trace how the museum engaged the local community and the wider field with the issues and challenges provided by the collection. 


Scholarly Session: Art and Invention in the U.S.

College Art Association Annual Conference, February 3-6, 2016, Washington, DC

Chairs: Ellery Foutch, Middlebury College, and Hélène Valance, Université de Franche-Comté
Date and Time: Friday, February 5, 2:30 PM—5:00 PM
Room and Location: Washington 3, Exhibition Level

Christian Schussele, Men of Progress, 1862. Oil on canvas, 50 1/2 x 75 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.65.60.

A few years after the exhibition of his Gallery of the Louvre, painter Samuel F. B. Morse adapted one of his canvas stretchers to create the prototype of a telegraph receiver, literally transforming a tool of his art practice into a medium of technological experimentation and invention. Over the course of the industrializing 19th century, the U.S. government revised and formalized procedures for granting patents and copyright, thereby changing public perceptions about creativity, invention, and intellectual property while creating entirely new careers for artists: patent examiners, model-makers, technical illustrators. Patents proliferated, and inventions were eagerly heralded in the popular press and public demonstrations. The very act of perception was altered by technology as well, via new visual spectacles, environments, and experiences. This session seeks to explore the complex relationships of art and invention in the United States.

Technological developments have profoundly changed all aspects of artistic production, consumption, and display; industrially-produced pigments and supports altered the process and materiality of painting itself, while photography and chromolithography yielded entirely new media, fostering competition and leading to anxieties about the status of art. Furthermore, new technologies such as the telegraph and the steamship—whose inventors, Samuel Morse and Robert Fulton, were also painters—allowed for increased transmission of ideas and images around the globe. Innovations such as artificial lighting affected the display of art, and new exhibition formats such as world’s fairs and patent museums juxtaposed painting and sculpture with the latest technological developments, from steam engines to X-ray machines. Many of these enterprises were financed by industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Charles Lang Freer, or Henry Marquand, who marketed innovations to global consumers while turning to artists and art institutions via philanthropy for status. Art in turn was used to glorify technological change, as when railroad magnate J.J. Phelps commissioned George Inness’s painting Lackawanna Valley in 1855.

This session will explore the explosion of inventiveness from art historical perspectives and will consider works of art through the lens of the history of technology. How did new media alter expectations for art and industry? What relationships developed between artists and inventors, and what was at stake in the dialogues between art and invention? How did inventions and patent processes change the look of modernity, and how was American identity shaped by the production of art and inventions?

Combustible Creativity: Image, Imagination, and the Work of Robert Fulton
Elizabeth Bacon Eager, Harvard University

The visual and literary mythology built up around artist and engineer Robert Fulton offers a complex and often self-contradictory picture of the technical imagination in the early nineteenth century. From the brooding genius of Benjamin West’s 1806 portrait, which suggests a primal link between the processes of creativity and destruction, to the mercenary pragmatism and technological determinism present in Fulton’s own acts of self-presentation, the unstable nature of inventiveness is depicted by an ever-shifting set of signs and symbols. Considering Fulton as both an object and agent of invention, this paper probes the intimate relationship between the artistic and technical imaginations and addresses the financial, personal and political stakes involved in defining the nature of inventiveness at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Capturing “Jove’s Autograph”: Electrical Agency in Late Nineteenth-Century Lightning Photography
Laura Turner Igoe, Winterthur

This paper argues that the creation, display, and dissemination of a series of lightning photographs by William Nicholson Jennings reinforced the material agency of electricity at a moment when it shifted from being a force with religious and spiritual associations to become a power that could be harnessed, utilized, and captured pictorially. Working in Philadelphia in the early 1880s, Jennings developed his lightning photographs—reported as the first ever successfully produced—at the same moment when the city itself was literally becoming electrified. He combined these innovative images with newspaper clippings, notes, and correspondence with electrical pioneers in an extant scrapbook entitled “Jove’s Autograph,” demonstrating a desire to both preserve the wonder and spiritual trappings of lightning while systematically capturing and documenting its multiple forms. I contend that Jennings’s lightning series grapples with an unresolved tension between the simultaneous romanticization and commodification of electricity in the late nineteenth-century United States.

Facsimile Technology and the Historiography of Failure
Miri Kim, Princeton University

“Picture telegraphy.” “Phototelegraphy.” “Pictures by telephone.” The process of facsimile transmission is perhaps best known for being overlooked in the history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century technology. Historians often frame the emergence of facsimile apparatuses in the 1800s and belated commercial viability during the following century as a disappointing “false start”—that is, as a broken technological promise. Rather than privileging the artifact, this paper considers the users, receivers, and artists involved in the dispatch and reception of images through a range of electromechanical and electrochemical mechanisms. By examining the careful mediation of the often anonymous receivers who handled, interpreted, and supplemented visual discrepancies in transmitted images, this paper asks what it would mean to produce a facsimile without necessarily reproducing the source, and reevaluates a technological operation that is otherwise understood in terms of failure.

The First Non-Human Action Artist: Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik in Robot Opera
Sophie Landres, Stony Brook University

The earliest collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik involved a third participant: the radio controlled, hermaphroditic, and malfunctioning Robot K-456. Every time it tottered through a concert hall or public park, broadcasting political speeches and unpredictably executing mechanical gestures, the performance was referred to as Robot Opera (1964). Reviewers extolled the aesthetic use of cybernetics. But while the machine’s kinesis demonstrated the marvels of modern science, the darkly comedic elements of Robot Opera alluded to late capitalism’s insatiable demand for productivity. This paper resituates Robot K-456 against the technocratic discourse. It argues that the robot was at once an ambivalent automated invention and a counter-hegemonic reinvention of two musical genres: opera buffa and Cagean indeterminacy. Through the hybrid body of the automaton and the hybrid compositional structure of Robot Opera, the artists pointed to dangerous circuits of control running through the postwar media ecology. 

Interrogating Invention: Electronic Café and the Politics of Technology
Cary Levine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 

In 1984, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz produced Electronic Café, a state-of-the-art “telecollaborative network” linking five culturally distinct Los Angeles neighborhoods. Operational for seven weeks and available for unrestricted public use, the network was designed to optimize instant communication and cross-cultural transmission. Electronic Café anticipated today’s world of real-time digital interaction and social media, yet it was more than simply a showcase for emerging technology. The work drew attention not only to enormous possibilities, but to conflicting realities, to the limitations and obstacles perpetuated alongside the promise of a dazzling, globally interconnected future. This paper will contextualize this early example of telecommunication art within a crucial, yet under-examined, moment in the history of art, technology, and American culture. It will focus on the specific ways in which Electronic Café engaged longstanding American myths of technological progress, assumed relationships between invention and cultural production, and established models of innovation.