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Alexander Nagel

Craig Hugh Smyth Professor of Fine Arts

My work is focused mostly on European art of the period 1300-1700, and is mostly concerned with how art allows humans to think through time and find orientation in the world. Trained as an historian, I came to art history to study the particular ways that material artifacts shape meanings and structure ways of being in an environment. My work has paid a good deal of attention to the temporal life of artworks, studying how art has been handled, restored, reframed, collected, reclassified, and written about since antiquity. Antiquarianism, anachronism, archaism, conservation, transfer, mediation, and forgery have been consistently at the focus of my work. I have also maintained an active interest in contemporary art, mostly because I see in its expansion of global reference and in its retrospective cast a set of problems that encourage taking the long view. I am regularly asked by contemporary art journals, exhibition organizers, and lecture conveners to comment on recent artistic developments within a larger historical framework, or more often recently, on events of 500 years ago in their contemporary resonance: the violent takeover of Tenochtitlan and the destruction of the Aztec population by small pox (1520-21), the slave rebellion against the Spanish on the island of Haiti and the first circumnavigation of the globe (1522) offer much to reflect on in the current moment.

Lately, my interests have turned to questions of physical orientation and configurations of place in early modern European art. More than any other artistic tradition in the history of art, European art of the period 1300-1500 was dedicated to depicting far-away people, places, and things, and to connecting those places to local realities. This pervasive orientation, and the challenges that it posed for visual media, contributed to many of the most distinctive features of what is called Renaissance art: naturalism, perspective, story-telling, anachronisms of various kinds, and new forms of artistic self-awareness. My ultimate goal is to understand how it was possible for a Europe-centered view of the world to emerge in the art of the sixteenth century out of this very different, “oriented” worldview. Together with many other colleagues, I believe that a fresh understanding of the early modern “Age of Encounters” is a necessary part of coming to terms with the emergent polyfocal global reality of our own time. I have pursued research on these questions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, Florence in 2017-18.

My recent activity offers a fair representation of my scholarly interests and my interest in engaging broader publics in global questions concerning the translations of art through space and time, its conservation and reclassifications, its reframing and modes of exhibition. I have recently been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanites for a project entitled Amerasia: European reflections of an emergent world, 1492-ca. 1700, on which I have collaborated with Elizabeth Horodowich (NMSU): http://ifaresearch.org/amerasia/. I have written pieces on Bernini and Michelangelo for the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement, co-edited a volume of wide-ranging essays for the Brooklyn Rail, and made contributions on questions of style, art forgery, and the contemporary exhibition industry for the journals Artforum, Frieze Masters, and October. Recently, I’ve co-edited a volume of essays on the afterlife of Ravenna in the Renaissance as well as one on Metapainting in the early modern period and have written the Introduction to a volume of Leo Steinberg’s essays on Michelangelo’s Painting. In recent years I have been invited to lecture on problems of orientation and on the impact of the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries on European worldviews at Harvard University, U.C. Berkeley, U.C.L.A., M.I.T, and University of Washington, the Bibliotheca Hertziana and University of La Sapienza in Rome.

My first book, Michelangelo and the Reform of Art (2000), awarded the prize for best book in Renaissance studies by the Renaissance Society of America, studied that artist's engagements with older traditions, genres, and modalities of art in the context of the image debates of the sixteenth century. The concern with the temporal life of art was developed in Anachronic Renaissance (2010), co-authored with Christopher Wood, which has appeared in a French translation and is soon to appear in Spanish and Italian. The concern with art and religion grew into a broader interpretation of the art of the period in The Controversy of Renaissance Art (2011), which was awarded the top book prize by the College Art Association. I have also studied the persistent interest in medieval art among artists of the twentieth century in Medieval Modern; Art out of Time (2012).

Some of my ideas are controversial, yet I am no prideful loner. I am a great believer in dialogue and collaboration in my field and across fields, and with colleagues all over the world. I now serve as Editor of I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, which publishes articles from all the Humanities disciplines. I have been part of research groups in France, Germany, and Spain, and have published four volumes of essays commissioned from multiple authors. I work often with colleagues across disciplines as well as in the world beyond academia, particularly the spheres of art making and curating. I am a consulting editor at the Cabinet Magazine and the Brooklyn Rail, and am now series Editor for the Irving Sandler Essays in the Visual Arts at the Brooklyn Rail, put me into collaborative relationship with artists and writers from many worlds.

I consider myself an ambassador of my home institution, actively connecting students and colleagues through larger networks of scholarly exchange. In 2007-8, my first year at NYU, I was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, Europe’s answer to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Before that, I served as Mellon Professor, a two-year research position at this country’s pre-eminent research center in art history at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I have participated in several research groups across Europe. I have served on the board of major journals and on the selection committees of important granting agencies.

The field of Renaissance art is neither as large nor as central as it once was. I believe this is an opportunity for the field to revise its premises and to come into a different configuration. I don’t believe that graduate students belong to one advisor or one department. “It takes a field”—this should be our motto. Accordingly, I mentor students, officially and unofficially, from many other programs, including UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, USC, Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, and various universities in Berlin, Paris, and Madrid.

Research Interests

  • The temporal life of artworks: antiquarianism, anachronism, archaism, forgery
  • Early modern art and the world; worldmaking as an achievement of visual media
  • The role of visual art in managing the temporal disruptions caused by human activity in the world
  • Classifications & reclassifications of art in early modern art theory, art history, & art collecting
  • Persistences and revivals of medieval/early modern modalities in modern & contemporary art
  • History of the discipline of art history
  • Art and image theory

Selected Publications

Books

Ravenna in the Imagination of Renaissance Art book cover

Ravenna in the Imagination of Renaissance Art (edited with Giancarla Periti), Brepols, 2020

[order Ravenna in the Imagination of Renaissance Art online]

Renaissance Metapainting book cover Renaissance Metapainting (edited with Péter Bokody), Brepols, 2020
[order Renaissance Metapainting online]
Bending Concepts book cover Bending Concepts: The Held Essays on Visual Art (edited with Jonathan T.D. Neil), Rail Editions, 2019. [order Bending Concepts online]

Medieval Modern book cover Medieval Modern, Thames and Hudson, 2012. [order online]
Interviews with Alexander Nagel about Medieval Modern:
[www.tandhblog.co.uk] [www.popmatters.com]
The Controversy of Renaissance Art book cover The Controversy of Renaissance Art, University Of Chicago Press, 2011.
Awarded 2012 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association.
Interview with Alexander Nagel about The Controversy of Renaissance Art: [www.rorotoko.com]
Subject as Aporia in Early Modern Art book cover Subject as Aporia in Early Modern Art, co-edited with Lorenzo Pericolo, Ashgate Press, 2010. [order online]
Anachronic Renaissance book cover Nagel, Alexander and Christopher Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books, 2010.[order online]
Michelangelo and the Reform of Art book cover Michelangelo and the Reform of Art Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. [order online]

Selected Writings

“The Shape of Generation in Art,” in Senzamargine: Passages in Italian Art at the Turn of the Millennium, eds. Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Stefano Chiodi (Venice: Marsilio, 2021), pp. 61-71. [read "The Shape of Generation in Art" online]

“Hell Is for White People: A painting from 1515 turns a mirror on its viewers,” Cabinet Magazine, June 10, 2020. [read "Hell Is for White People" online]

“Shared Ground (Marie Denise Villers’ portrait of Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes at the Metropolitan Museum),” in 4Columns, June, 2020.
 [read "Shared Ground" online] 

“Amerasia: European Reflections of an Emergent World, 1492-ca. 1700,” Journal of Early Modern History 23 (2019): 257-295. (Co-author: Elizabeth Horodowich) [download PDFof Amerasia]

“Conversations on the Page” (on the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer), Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 2018. [download PDF of Conversations on a page]

“Don’t Look Away: Hubert Robert’s L’Accident,” Cabinet Magazine 54 (2014) [download PDF of "Don’t Look Away"]

“The Panic That It Induces,” Should I Go To Grad School?, eds. Bosko Blagojevic and Jessica Loudis (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) [download PDF of "The Panic That It Induces"]

“Beyond the Relic Cult of Art,” Held Essays on Visual Art, Brooklyn Rail, July 15, 2014 [download PDF]

“Objects That Are Only Boundaries,” Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (New York: Whitney Museum, 2014) [download PDF]

“Style-eating Granite,” Cabinet Magazine, 2014 [download PDF]

Some Discoveries of 1492: Eastern Antiquities and Renaissance Europe, Seventeenth Horst Gerson Lecture, held on November 14, 2013 (Groningen: University of Groningen, 2013) [download PDF]

"How Medieval Art Can Help Us Rethink the Exhibition Industry,” Frieze Masters 2 (2013): 44-51 [download PDF]

"Robert Smithson Removed from the Source," Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 63/64 (2013): 285-88 [download PDF]

"Interview with Robert Smithson, March 20, 1968 (prologue by Irving Sandler, annotated by Alexander Nagel)," Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 63/64 (2013): 289-98 [download PDF]

Review of Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and his Rome, in London Review of Books, January 3, 2013 [download PDF]

Review of Painting for Profit: The Economic Lives of Seventeeth-Century Painters, eds. Philip Sohm and Richard Spear (Yale University Press, 2010) [download PDF]

"Art out of Time: The Relic and Robert Smithson,"Artforum 51, 2 (2012): 232-39. [download PDF]

“Twenty-five notes on pseudoscript in Italian art,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 59/60 (2011): 229-48 [download PDF]

Contribution to the forum “Questions of Style,” Artforum 49, 1 (2010): 258-59. [download PDF]

“Roundtable on the Global before Globalization,” with Barry Finnbar Flood, Alessandra Russo, Eugene Wang, and Christopher Wood, moderated by David Joselit, October 133 (2010): 3-19. [download PDF]

“The Afterlife of the Reliquary,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saint, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, eds. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson (Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2010), 211-22. [download PDF]

Coauthored with Christopher Wood. "What counted as an Antiquity in the Renaissance?" In Renaissance Medievalisms, Toronto, 53-74. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2009. [download PDF]

"Icons and Early Modern Portraits." In El Retrato del Renacimiento, edited by Miguel Falomir, Madrid: Museo del Prado, 2008.[download PDF]

"Authorship and Image-making in the Monument to Giotto in Florence cathedral." Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 53-54 (2008): 143-151. [download PDF]

"From the Vault: Preview of Jacopo Tintoretto at the Prado." Artforum 45 (2007): 109-110. [download PDF]

Nagel, Alexander and Christopher Wood. "Towards a new model of Renaissance anachronism." Art Bulletin 87 (2005): 403-32. (with responses by Michael Cole, Charles Dempsey, and Claire Farago. [download PDF]

"Fashion and the now-time of Renaissance art," Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 46 (2004): 33-52. [download PDF]

"Experiments in art and reform in early sixteenth-century Italy." In The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, edited by Kenneth Gouwens and Sheryl Reiss, 385-409. London: Ashgate, 2004. [download PDF]

"Art as gift: Liberal art and the Discourse of Religious Reform in the Renaissance." In Négocier le Don-Negotiating the Gift, 387-413.Paris: Deutsches Historisches Institut, 2003. [download PDF]

"The Antipodes of Modernity: Distinguished Scholars’ Session in honor of Leo Steinberg," lecture at the College Art Association, 2002. [link to lecture]

“Recent literature on Lorenzo Lotto.” (Review of Lorenzo Lotto by Jacques Bonnet; Lorenzo Lotto by Peter Humfrey;, Lorenzo Lotto: Master Painter of the Renaissance by David Alan Brown, Peter Humfrey, and Mauro Lucco; Lorenzo Lotto e l'Immaginario Alchemico by Mauro Zanchi), Art Bulletin 80 (1998): 742-46. [download PDF]

"Altarpiece (Definition and History)." In The Dictionary of Art.London: MacMillan, 1996, I, 707-13. [download PDF]

“Recent literature on Fra Angelico.” (Review of, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration by Georges Didi-Huberman, trans. Jane Marie Todd and, Fra Angelico at San Marco by William Hood), Art Bulletin, 78, 1996, 559-65. [download PDF]

"Leonardo and sfumato." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 24 (1993) 7-20. [download PDF]

Academic Degrees

Harvard University, Department of Fine Arts (1987-1993): M.A. 1990, PhD 1993.
University of California, Berkeley, Department of History (1982-1987): B.A. 1987.
Université de Montpellier, Département d'Histoire (1984-1985): D.E.U.G. 1985.