The Institute of Fine Arts and The Frick Collection Symposium on the History of Art

The Frick Collection and the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University jointly sponsor the annual Symposium on the History of Art for graduate students in the northeastern United States. Speakers are nominated by their doctoral programs to present original research in any field of art history.

2023 Symposium on the History of Art

The Symposium will be held via Zoom. Live captioning will be provided.

Registration required [opens in new window]

Friday, April 14, 2023

9:30 ET


Ian Wardropper, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director, The Frick Collection

Christine Poggi, Judy and Michael Steinhardt Director, The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Moderated by Peter Moore Johnson, The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University


“The Icon as Relic: Authenticating the Cult of St. Luke in Padua”

Sarah F. Cohen, Columbia University

The Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua displays an encaustic icon of the Virgin and Child attributed to Saint Luke (d. A.D. 84) directly above a central arca containing his bodily remains. According to thirteenth-century legend, both were brought to Italy from Constantinople in the eighth century, where they were formerly housed in the church of the Holy Apostles. The date of this translation, or translatio, notably coincides with the earliest extant accounts of an icon of the Virgin and Child, an image purportedly painted from life and rendered by the Saint's hand, which was believed to present their authentic divine likenesses. While previous studies of the icon by Hans Belting (1990) and Charles Barber (2002) have consequently treated the work as a sacred relic of the Virgin, none have interpreted it as a relic of Saint Luke or considered its role in his respective cult. Section I of this paper introduces the grounds for understanding the work as a contact relic of the Saint by tracing the marked emphasis on Luke's artistry in the earliest accounts supporting the icon's sanctity. With this context provided, the paper then addresses the icon's integral role in the Saint's late Medieval cult at the Abbey of Santa Giustina, arguing that its display above his corporeal relics further solidifies the work's relic status and employs its recognizability as an authentic image to verify the Saint's concealed remains below.


“East Anglian Angel Roof Sculpture and Lollard Anti-Sacramentalism”

Oliver Coulson, Brown University

From 1382, when the ideas of theologian John Wycliffe (c.1328-1384) were deemed heretical by the Church, England was gripped by a debate about the role of art in religion. While iconoclasts known as Lollards were burning images, hundreds of iconoclasts were themselves being burnt. So serious were anxieties surrounding the presence of art in religion that to criticize devotional use of images was, along with a rejection of sacramental doctrine, the most conspicuous marker of heresy.

In 1401, Norfolk priest, William Sawtrey, was the first person to be burnt at the stake under a new law that heralded an era in which professing disbelief in the power of images could prove fatal. At the same time, parish church roofs in the eastern counties of England began to be filled with large sculptures of angels. My paper explores the idea that an unusual prevalence of angel sculptures in the roofs of churches in East Anglia is connected to fears about the spread of Lollardy in the region.

Approximately 145 of the 170 known examples of medieval open timber roofs with angel sculptures are situated in the most counties of southern England. Focusing on the case study of St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, I argue that Sawtrey’s destabilizing ideas and the anti-sacramental beliefs of many other local Lollards spurred a fashion for filling the roofs of East Anglian churches with sculptures of angels that asserted the idea of angelic presence at Mass. My research builds on the valuable work of historians who have studied Lollardy through texts by also using visual evidence to analyze the relationship between heresy and art during the Lollard iconoclasm.


“The Disappearance of Doctrine and the Hyper-bodied Savior in Mogao Cave 321”

Isabel McWilliams, Harvard University

The painted tableau on the south wall of Mogao Cave 321 in Dunhuang, Western China, has long been a subject of interest among scholars of Chinese Buddhist art. The seeming incongruity of its contents—treasure rain with hands holding jewels, a curious assembly of figures around the central Buddha, and humans in distress–has led to various tentative doctrinal attributions. The identification of faint traces of text on its surface has resulted in its most recent re-identification as the only extant illustration of a religious text about Dizang, a savior deity in the form of a monk who saves sentient beings from the dark age of the end of doctrine. This tableau illustrates Dizang’s role of saving living beings in the moment before new doctrine would charge him with the task of intervening in hell to save them. Since this re-identification, questions about the contents of the tableau are now largely answerable.

What remains to be understood, however, is the purpose behind selecting this subject for the south wall. Its relationship to a painted frontal image of another savior deity, Guanyin, on the adjoining east wall provides the key. Doctrinal and visual illustrations of Guanyin had already established this deity with the role of saving sentient beings that Dizang now fulfills on the south wall. This replacement does not make Guanyin disappear, however, as Guanyin instead appears on the adjacent wall with six arms and eleven heads as one of the earliest images of this form at Dunhuang. Why should two savior deities appear in the same space? The answer, which reveals the underlying principle of the entire program generated by the late seventh and early eighth century angst about the end of the world, lies in the power of incantation.


Moderated by Anna-Claire Stinebring, The Frick Collection


“Imprint of Individuality: From Zhangzhou ‘Tri-Color’ Ware to Mino Ceramics, 1590s–1620s”

Diana X. Yang, Bard Graduate Center

This paper discusses an intriguing but little-known instance of artistic relay from early modern China to Japan. Around 1600 Chinese and Japanese regional ceramic kilns in Zhangzhou and Mino challenged the dominant aesthetic canons of formal perfection of Jingdezhen pottery by creating highly individualized works. They did so by intensifying the shade of the glaze and giving free rein to the spontaneous spirit of the potter.

Tiankeng, one of the most promising workshops of the Zhangzhou kiln complex in southern Fujian, released a brand-new line of low-fired, lead-glazed products with dazzling colors of lemon yellow, emerald green, and aubergine. Conventionally known as “kōchi ware” to Japanese buyers, the refreshing Zhangzhou stoneware easily won the hearts of late-Momoyama metropolitan consumers. The sweeping success of the Zhangzhou tri-color ware among mercantile, military, and monastic elites spurred aspiring Mino potters to organically incorporate Zhangzhou design elements into their own indigenous ceramics. Sensitive to the efflorescence of wabi-chanoyu culture, they created works that married coveted Kyoto-approved designs with fresh Zhangzhou-inspired glaze. The introduction of advanced kiln technology to the Mino region enabled local potters to make radiant stoneware with fully vitrified glaze. The leading tea masters’ endorsement of freehand pictorial decoration on tea ware further empowered Mino kilns to dethrone earlier Zhangzhou tri-colored ware with their groundbreaking, idiosyncratically patterned Oribe ware. The crescendo of whimsical Oribe-type stoneware coincided with the diminuendo of expressive potential on Zhangzhou ceramics in general. As Zhangzhou kilns declined steeply in the 1640s in the wake of disastrous dynastic changes, the Fujianese workshops forever bid farewell to their dynamic designs. It was their Mino counterparts that further pushed the boundaries of accepted ceramic norms, where artistic individuality finally triumphed over technical impeccability in the aesthetics of preindustrial Asian pottery.


“Wood-working: Brazilwood and Salvation in the Americas and Amsterdam’s Rasphuis Prison”

Erin Wrightson, University of Pennsylvania

In the early decades of the sixteenth century, the brazilwood industry enabled European conquest and domination of the region now known as Brazil and its Indigenous peoples. In Europe, the wood’s working became a show. This paper will explore spectacularized brazilwood labor in Amsterdam’s Rasphuis correctional facility, founded in 1592. The Rasphuis was the first European prison with the goal of reforming and reintegrating prisoners into society. Informed by the teachings of Dutch Humanist Dirck Volkertz. Coornhert, the Rasphuis used the manual labor of grinding brazilwood logs for the Dutch textile industry as a tool for the salvation of its inmates. In much the same way, Indigenous laborers were ideologically civilized and Christianized pictorially through their harvesting of brazilwood in the New World. As the Rasphuis and its work reform program became a tourist attraction, I argue that Europeans performed the same labors as Indigenous peoples for European spectators. I position brazilwood at the center of these spectacles, highlighting the ways that its material transformation was central to the visual economy of both punishment and salvation. Using visual representations of brazilwood’s working in manuscripts and printed books, this paper points to the idealization of labor on both sides of the Atlantic and questions the limits of such salvation.


“Casting an Eye Toward Shore: Animals and Environment in Early Seventeenth-Century Dutch Prints of the Local Coast”

Rachel Kase, Boston University

This paper explores how leading printmakers in the Northern Netherlands, including Jan Saenredam and Claes Jansz Visscher, employ varying graphic strategies and subject matter to evoke the local coast’s unpredictable and rapidly changing environment in the early seventeenth century. It focuses on two ambitious and relatively large-scale prints with widespread distribution: Jan Saenredam’s 1602 engraving Beached Whale Near Beverwijk, which presents a rare occasion when observers could study a whale from life, and Claes Jansz Visscher’s etching of about 1615 View of Egmond aan Zee, which advertises a lottery to raise funds for the village gasthuis. Lively with activity and dense with figures, allegory, text, and civic insignia, the two images integrate cartographic convention, natural history information, and landscape imagery. At the same time, they resist straightforward interpretation and the limits of their representational status. By drawing attention to the visual and intellectual inconsistencies that exist between the physical landscape and its representation, Saenredam and Visscher, I argue, evoke the often-imperceptible forces – erosion, rising sea-levels, and climate change – that animate and change the outermost edges of landscape.

The paper will also address existing textual, cartographic, and visual traditions for representing the coastal and marine life. Images such as Olaus Magnus’s 1539 Carta Marina, in which sea monsters appear in the North Sea, Albrecht Durer’s 1521 watercolor of a walrus, and Adriaen Collaert’s prints of marine species created for his Piscivm Vivae Icones, published around 1600, reflect the contours of contemporary cultural curiosity towards sea life that appeared on shore. My methodological approach builds upon ecocritical engagements with early modern art history as well as recent contributions to the blue humanities. Through discussion of a range of graphic artworks, I show how such imagery facilitated and informed seventeenth-century Netherlanders’ concern and appreciation for their coastal ecology and environs.


“Golden Light, Flashes of Color, and Breaking Clouds: A Supernatural Death in the Sun King’s Court”

Sarah Ana Seligman, Yale University

This paper traces the ways in which Charles de La Fosse’s painting The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, created for the Palace of Versailles, employs innovations in theater, color theory, and pyrotechnics to transform the meaning of sacrifice from a ritual of blood offering to a divine gift for King Louis XIV. Employing light and fire to signify the supernatural, de La Fosse harnessed the mysterious power of grace. In so doing, he suggests with Iphigenia that salvation lies in the hands of God and by extension, Louis XIV, who commissioned it. Using bright, vibrant pigments and warm, golden light to depict a scene of divine intervention, de La Fosse’s painting turns an image of bloodshed into a mystical apotheosis relating directly to the iconography of the “Sun King.” His painting is a testament to the grace and power of the king as much as it is also evidence of the mastery of the artist, who can wield his brush and create such miraculous effects.

I explore de La Fosse’s intellectual and artistic context to illustrate the painting’s multifaceted relationship to the mythological narrative from which it derives its central plot. De La Fosse pulled elements from Jean Racine’s play Iphigenia, performed in Versailles just a few years before the painting’s commission. He also adapted the episode with components of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis. In addition to mythological sources, he drew from religious iconography, blending mythology and religion. Painting clouds in a manner that accentuates the miraculous nature of salvation, de La Fosse employed light and fire that accords with accounts of fireworks that took place in Versailles following the performance of Racine’s Iphigenia in 1674. The overall effect brings together French tragedy and a supernatural idea of salvation that places Louis XIV at its center.


Moderated by Lijie Wang, The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University 


“Contingency in the Temporal Vacuum of Expansionism: Photographs by Khudaibergen Devanov (1870–1940)”

Ksenia Pavlenko, Cornell University

This paper concerns photographs by Khudaibergen Devanov, who is celebrated as a pioneer of cinema in Uzbekistan. Devanov’s photographs reveal a reflexive and experimental relationship to the ‘type’ genre that dominated photographic production in the Khanate of Khiva and adjacent regions. The ‘type’ was a centuries old visual paradigm that pictured a person as a representation of a certain community, and photographs that adopted this format gained wide popularity throughout the Russian Empire from the 1860s onward. The dissemination of ‘type’ photographs coincided with increasing Russian expansion into Transoxiana.

In its various forms and areas of influence, the photographic ‘type’ consistently created difference through how it pictured a person’s relationship to time. Mikhail Bakhtin has asserted that “The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic,”[1] and imperial commissions seized on this dimension of meaning to display subjects from Asia as static and timeless. The formal breakthroughs in a selection of Devanov’s images point to an innovative approach to photographic image making from within the conventions of photographic ‘types,’ offering the opportunity to examine expressive, rather than repressive, depictions of time by engaging with discourse on Orientalism and modernism. Devanov contextualized his subjects with a contingent relationship to their material worlds, undoing ongoing imperialist assumptions regarding visual culture from Transoxiana.

[1] Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 85.


“‘An Imaginary Place with No Images’: Post-Ottoman Memories in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Ismyrna”

Elif Karakaya, University of Rochester

This paper examines the Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s fifty-minute video essay Ismyrna (2016). The film consists of a conversation between Hadjithomas and artist Etel Adnan, whose families of Greek descent were displaced from Smyrna (modern-day Izmir) with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to filming Ismyrna, neither of them had ever been to Izmir—a place of loss and trauma that neither dared visit. Yet, in the film, they talk about an imaginary Smyrna based on the memories they inherited from their families. My discussion of Adnan's and Hadjithomas’s identities as respectively second- and third-generation emigrants problematizes the generational distance that mediates the memory of the Ottoman Empire and articulates the artists’ attachment to their Ottoman past as an instance of “postmemory”—Marianne Hirsch’s term describing the kind of memory not mediated by recall but by the images or stories of the previous generations who witnessed a historical event. Through formal analysis of Ismyrna, this paper argues that the film adopts an aesthetics that matches the fragmental nature of postmemorial remembrance complicated by generational distance and belatedness. The film’s formal qualities, such as the voiceover or the appropriation of archival footage, function as aesthetic strategies of layering the concepts of witnessing and responsibility.


“James Turrell: Local Conditions and Global Abstractions”

Emily Leifer, Bryn Mawr College

The installation artist James Turrell has stated that, when visiting his immersive light-filled spaces, viewers are meant to “perceive themselves perceiving.” Inside his room-sized artworks, diffuse lighting and unusual architecture confuse viewers’ visual comprehension. What one sees no longer maps directly onto what physically exists. By introducing these incongruities, Turrell brings attention to the mental processes that transform sensory information into lived experience. Previous authors have centered this apperception in their readings of Turrell’s works, citing the influence of Phenomenology on the Minimalists of the preceding decade. This talk expands the historical points of reference brought to bear on Turrell’s work, moving beyond the goal of perceiving yourself perceiving, to determine why the perception of space might have been interesting to an artist working in 1970s Los Angeles.

While many scholars have focused on light in Turrell’s works, often drawing spiritual conclusions, I examine the way Turrell’s installations physically engage or exclude their spatial surroundings. An analysis of the formal use of space in three artworks, Mendota Stoppages (1969-1974) Skyspace I (1974) and City of Arhirit (1976/ 1980), reveals tensions between the perception of one’s local, lived surroundings and more abstract, global space. These spatial frictions took on new significance during the decade’s rapid developments in technology, environmentalism, and global commerce, developments that were generally centered in Southern California.

Southern California in the 1970s, in its explicitly environmentalist movements, its technological and economic shifts, and its innovations in experiential installation art, produced understandings of local and global space that continue to condition what North Americans recognize as “the environment.” Excavating this history, one can begin to address the persistent blind spots—such as a focus on the individual or dependence on technical solutions—that may contribute to inaction in the face of global climate disaster.


“Spheres of Indeterminacy: Tactile Politics in Wang Te-yu’s Inflatable Art, circa 1996”

Pei-Chun (Viola) Hsieh, Binghamton University

“My inflatable object is about pushing and grasping the edge of air.” This statement, by Taiwanese contemporary artist Wang Te-yu, reveals the intentions she has for the inflatable, balloon-like installations that have become her signature work over the past two decades. Her work embodies a radical aesthetics of touch that both challenges the habitual nature of our sensual vitality and opens unexpected political possibilities. This paper argues that her inflatable art prompts a tactile politics that challenges the official, ocularcentric aesthetics that dominated the ecosystem of art in postwar Taiwan. Furthermore, I suggest that Wang’s pneumatic works materialize an attentive perception of touch that dissolves our distinct subjectivity and opens a different sphere of codependence and coexistence.


Moderated by Juul Van Haver, The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University 


“Reimagining Mary Cassatt’s Images as Illustrations of Care”

 Lini Radhakrishnan, Rutgers University

Compared to Mary Cassatt’s earlier pictures of her sister, her 1880 portrait, Lydia crocheting in the Garden at Marly reveals a dramatic loss of weight. I argue that the artist visually recorded symptoms of the malady that ultimately consumed her sibling. Cassatt’s works have typically been read through the lens of her bourgeois life, but these conventional readings of women’s paintings miss her truly ambitious representations of disease and care. In this paper, I explore the artist’s portraits of her sister and mother to identify potent but overlooked signifiers of disease on their physical forms. The artist’s role as a caregiver to her family allowed her to develop a deeper intimacy with the vulnerable body and honed her eye to recognize the corporeal traces of disease. Her educated “caregiver” gaze rendered her subject’s skin almost translucent, revealing symptoms that are no longer subtle once brought to the surface. Her portraits of her sister and mother serve as precursor to a remarkable shift in Cassatt’s subjects. When she lost her favorite subjects, she began to almost exclusively construct representations of women and children that continue to employ the caregiver gaze. I draw upon archival sources such as the Cassatt family’s correspondence and papers to establish that her oeuvre serves as a repository of the trauma of her lived experience. Her literary considerations, including François-Vincent Raspail’s popular publications on domestic medicine, ground this paper in her active interest in the field. Cassatt’s work is repositioned as deeply engaged with discourses of medicine, trauma, and care. In doing so, I make space for a broader investigation of the visual culture of disease and care.


“New Objectives: Painting, Labor, and Technique in 1920s Germany” 

Joe Bucciero, Princeton University

Drawn from my dissertation, this paper reframes the representational painting of 1920s Germany associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Since 1923, when the curator Gustav F. Hartlaub coined the term, critics and scholars of various commitments have focused their attention mostly on Neue Sachlichkeit painting’s content, often presenting it as illustrative of the Weimar period’s dynamic history and social make-up. But these observers have, in turn, neglected to complicate a related prevailing assumption: that, in formal terms, the art signifies a mere “return to order,” or that its perceived stylistic or formal traditionalism (in short, its predominance of figuration over abstraction) affirms the entrenched bourgeois structures of Western painting. My paper, like my dissertation, does not defend against this basic premise so much as inquire into the conditions that subtended the production of a broad corpus of art which—despite the amount of scholarship on its surrounding period—remains only narrowly theorized and historicized. Rarely a withdrawal from its time and place, the paintings are instead products of the emergent, uneven social and technical demands faced by Germans across classes and professions. Likewise, rarely a pointed reaction to artistic modernism, painting of the Neue Sachlichkeit depended for its form precisely upon a matrix of contemporary discourses and techniques of labor, science, and art—academic as well as avant-garde—just as it depended for its content on contemporary social and material phenomena from throughout Germany. To assess it from both ends allows for more holistic grasp of the stakes of the Weimar period’s cultural production writ large. In the end, the matter at hand is less about form or style than position or role: What, these artists and critics asked, ought a painter to do—and how—within a situation that appeared socially, technologically, and culturally hostile to their pursuit?


“The Mestizo and Pardo Cyborgs of Xul Solar’s Techno-Utopias”

Isabel Elson, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

In the early 1920s, Argentine artist and writer Xul Solar conceived of a Pan-American language that he proposed could unite Latin America into a global superpower. From its inception, Solar’s Neo-Criollo was not only an agglomerate language, but also an aspirational culture, and most importantly, I argue, a racial identity. While significant scholarship has been published on the linguistic and architectural utopianism of Solar’s vision, it is perhaps due to the history of blanquemiento policies of racial erasure in Argentina that so little has been made of the racial hierarchies upon which Solar’s utopia relied.

In this paper, I analyze Solar’s series of drawings from 1935 and 1936 of flying cyborg figures, identified as mestizos de avión, in dialogue with an essay Solar published in 1957 in which he lists his proposals for mechanical “corrections” that would transform the human body into a stronger, more productive, superhuman race. When understood in the context of the complex racial ideology upon which Argentina was founded, these drawings and essay make clear that in building his new Pan-American world, Solar had no intention of disrupting the racial hierarchies that governed the old one. The cyborg race upon which Solar’s utopia is built and powered is explicitly racialized not only in the language the artist uses to describe them, but also in the labor these figures perform. Trapped within the roles Solar designed them for, I argue that the cyborg serves both as a symbol of modernity and productivity, and as a distinct racial threat within Solar’s utopian imaginings.


“Prefiguring the Possible: The DYN Circle in Mexico City, 1939–44”

Megan Kincaid, The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

This talk examines the contribution of artists associated with the magazine DYN (1942-44) to developing a discourse on abstraction that emphasized the aesthetic and political value of “possibility” at the outset of the 1940s. In Mexico City, the renegade cohort of émigré surrealists, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, and Eva Sulzer, posited that abstraction followed from the imagination, and, with it, novel imagery––announcing their break with European surrealism and aligning them with Mexican artists in their ambit who were simultaneously embracing the non-representational.

Unpacking possibility’s significance for this generation working in Mexico underscores its ideological affirmation of abstraction’s revolutionary agency in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and amid World War II. First emerging in an art historical context in Paalen’s DYN (Greek for “the possible”), the concept of possibility, though never fully defined at the time, encapsulated art’s ability to prefigure the unknown and project other worlds. Exploring the form and content of DYN, especially Paalen’s essays on “prefigurative art,” alongside the magazine’s less-anticipated forays into ethnography and archaeology, reveals how possibility was inextricable from the growing interest in pre-Columbian art among the Mexican avant-garde, as well as broad cultural coordinates like wave theory and discoveries in physics. Though avowedly abstract, Paalen and Rahon’s mature paintings teem with images of extraterrestrial and subterranean realms and alien figures and structures that refute the real––envisioning alternate dimensions, temporalities, and histories.

The paper will analyze the DYN circle’s visual output alongside the early experiments in abstraction by Central American artists, particularly Gunther Gerzso, Mathias Goeritz, and Carlos Mérida in addition to mainstream figurative artists Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo. Recuperating the various influences that gave rise to this discourse, I hope to reconstruct this episode of abstraction within international channels and new discursive frameworks.

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