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2018 Conference—Los Angeles

As an affiliated society of the College Art Association (CAA), the Association of Historians of American Art sponsors a one-and-a-half-hour session at the CAA annual conference.

Scholarly Session: America Is (Still) Hard to See: New Directions in American Art History

College Art Association Annual Conference in Los Angeles, February 21—24, 2018

Chair: Elizabeth Lee, Dickinson College
Respondent: Erika Doss, University of Notre Dame
Date and Time: Friday, February 23, 2018, 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Location: Room 408A

The 2015 inaugural exhibition of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, America Is Hard to See, charted a largely unconventional history of modern American art built around issues that have galvanized United States artists, pressing them into often uncomfortable relationships with challenging political and social contexts, including the history of slavery, labor unrest and the Vietnam War—and effectively underscoring the point that America is hard to see. In recent years, scores of museum exhibitions, books and catalogues have worked to reimagine the field along these lines, telling the history of United States art in all of its multilayered, messy complexity. It is now common to find major shows of previously suppressed African-American and Latinx artists as well as scholarly studies of forgotten women and LGBTQ artists. Yet in an era of unprecedented economic inequality, Black Lives Matter, the rise of the alternative right, and anti-immigration reform, there remains much to be done. This panel seeks to address where American art history from colonial times to the present sits in our twenty-first century classrooms, galleries, museums, blogs and journals—and, more importantly, what directions we might pursue for its future growth.

Seeing the Unseen: Suppression within the Visual Culture of American Slavery 
Rachel Stephens, University of Alabama

     Although visual culture that addressed American slavery is often covered within a standard American art history survey course, much work on this topic remains to be done. One especially intriguing question relates to the idea of censorship in the antebellum era. When addressing slavery, how far was too far? In the Victorian era of decorum and southern chivalry, the executors of both anti- and pro-slavery images took care to ensure that their messages would be both received and understood by their intended audience, while not crossing an invisible line. The images that were made but never shown, or produced in covert forms, are quite illuminating. A powerful example of this idea exists in the painting Virginian Luxuries (ca. 1825). Painted on the back of a portrait, the scene exposed personal ideas about master/slave relationships that the patron wanted to express, but only covertly. 
     This presentation highlights a range of images addressing slavery that were produced, but never intended to be publicly seen. These works provide a wider view of slavery’s role in nineteenth-century American life, speaking to conservative modes of communication as well as the temperamental nature of these ideas. In sum, not only is acknowledging prevalent imagery that addressed slavery critical to future inquiry as the ramifications of slavery continue to be unpacked, but awareness of the full body of work that was being produced aids the study of just how entrenched, troublesome, and significant slavery was in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Textualizing Intangible Cultural Heritage: Querying the Methods of Art History
Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, University of Washington

     The visual aspects of Indigenous arts are fundamentally tied to movement, song, and language. When objects are removed from their performative contexts, as is often the case in museum display and text-based art historical inquiries, they lose their connections to the contexts in which their cultural meanings are activated and become physical remnants of the dynamic moment of meaning. 
     Focusing on Kwakwaka’wakw regalia seen in 1930 films by Franz Boas illustrates the fraught nature of archival materials and the challenges to art historical methodology in reestablishing the connections that material objects have with intangible cultural property—dance, song, names, and even geographical locations. My inquiry asks how can institutions record these important connections? How do new ventures into digital humanities (such as being used for this film project) provide potential remedies that were not previously available? The possibilities are intriguing; they hold out the hope that we can build out the previously disconnected visual and textual template for art historical collections into more robust considerations. Bringing these materials together may reveal the misunderstandings of cultural epistemologies that have stemmed from an approach that privileges the visual and the collecting of tangible wealth. This project exemplifies art history’s unique capability to approach material cultural from the primacy of the object while integrating the performative contexts and intangible properties that are key to robust analyses of the artworks.

Two American Painters and Native/American Art History
Kristine K. Ronan, Independent Scholar

     In April of 1972, curator Adelyn Breeskin opened Two American Painters at the National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington, D.C. While named in response to Michael Fried’s Three American Painters exhibition of 1965, Breeskin’s show featured Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon, two Native artists from the American Southwest. Both were forerunners in the Indian Pop movement, and their appearance at the NCFA marked the first time a national institution mounted a two-person show of living Native painters in the United States.
     Despite the importance of this moment, Two American Painters remains absent from most art history texts. Why? This talk unpacks this absence through the exhibition’s Indian Pop works and their complicated positions between American and Native American art histories; between national and local frameworks; and between contemporary and Native arts markets. These binaries still structure an either/or approach to American and Native American art histories, distinctly segregating the fields in a majority of our textbooks, exhibitions, course offerings, and museum collections. In contrast, Two American Painters put forward a both/and model for art history, whereby artistic identities operate along spectrums rather than within stark binaries. I argue that this both/and model provides a needed expansion of American art history, bringing into view major groups of artists and artworks that often remain “hard to see.”


AHAA Business Meeting

College Art Association Annual Conference in Los Angeles, February 21—24, 2018.

Date and Time: Friday, February 23, 2018, 12:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Location: Room 404B

Please join us for AHAA's Annual Business Meeting, your opportunity to hear in person about AHAA's initiatives and the new benefits the Board has been working on for our members. The Board also wants to hear from you about how AHAA can best support its scholarly community.