RESEARCH SCOPE AND MOTIVATIONS
In a culture where vision reigns supreme, identity tends to describe how one sees oneself and how one is seen by others. Visual art not only records and produces identities, but also pictures relationships of power between them. My research investigates how marginalized identities—especially those of transgender and disabled people—have been made to appear (or disappear) in art. Because transgender people do not fit neatly within fixed gender categories and disability is as much a product of inaccessible environments as it is of an individual's physical or intellectual condition, art history that follows binary logics of male/female and able/disabled can make transgender and disabled figures difficult to discuss. Thus, I look to interdisciplinary methods of transgender, intersex, and disability studies when considering sex, gender, and disability in art. This approach produces new insights into how hierarchies of gendered embodiment that organize US-American culture appear in art. Furthermore, my work also demonstrates how the visual and material information that art objects contain gives critical access to aspects of transgender and disability history that are not yet written.
During World War II, Nazi occupation forced the centers of modern art and transsexual medicine to move from Europe to the United States; my dissertation explores the legacy of this convergence in modern and contemporary American art and cultivates transgender art history as a distinct subfield. In my first chapter, I explore how the abstract symbolism in paintings by Forrest Bess (1911-1977) allowed the artist to stealthily present his controversial theory of gender to audiences that would have at best disagreed with him and at worst attacked him for what would surely have been seen as perverse ideas. The next chapter interprets photographs of Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (1944-1974) by Richard Avedon, Richard Bernstein, and Peter Hujar through her journals and letters to understand how her figure challenged the very idea of gender authenticity that was (and still is) used to undermine transsexual identity in the 1960s and 1970s. In chapter three, I examine how dolls by Greer Lankton (1958-1996) present gender transformation a form of sculptural metamorphosis while also responding to cultural attitudes about transsexuality in the 1980s and 1990s. In my last chapter, I investigate how contemporary performance works by Cassils (b. 1971) activate a specifically trans masculine art history that is rooted feminist performance history and histories of gay male aesthetics and point to racial contingencies within transgender experiences.
By focusing on how these works of art undermine strict divisions between categories of “man” and “woman,” this dissertation will construct a more capacious picture of gender in art than the field of art history has offered thus far by contributing to the growth of the subfield of transgender art history. Transgender visibility in art has largely occurred outside of traditional art history through the 2017 anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility and earlier work by Jay Prosser and Jack Halberstam. However, a few scholars—including Roland Betancourt in his forthcoming book Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages—are working to bring historical depth to this growing subfield of art history. I aim to do the same within the recent past of US-American art.
PUBLICATION HISTORY AND PLAN
Chapter one will be published as an article titled “Envisioning Non-Binary Gender: The Art of Forrest Bess” in the Archives of American Art Journal in spring 2022. An editor with Duke University Press has also expressed interest in potentially working with me to transform this dissertation into a book. This process will include drafting a fifth chapter and chapter-length epilogue. My new work for chapter five will focus on how artist Juliana Huxtable (b. 1987) uses text, print, and digital photography to mine the convergence of transgender and intersex histories with legacies of colonialism and the slave trade in the US. My epilogue will attend the ways in which Chris E. Vargas’s (b. 1986) Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) reimagines transgender object archives and considers how to preserve the cultural nuances of transgender history when the meaning of “transgender” is still evolving and often contested. This epilogue will expand on my article, “Chris Vargas’s Consciousness Razing: From Forgetting to Futurity” which was published in Transgender Studies Quarterly in February 2020 and considers how Vargas reimagined George Segal’s Gay Liberation Monument (1980) to reflect forgotten histories of participation in the Stonewall Rebellion by transgender people of color.
Concurrent with completing my dissertation, I also co-edited the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Visual Culture dedicated to transgender visual culture with Dr. Kirstin Ringelberg. In our introduction, “Prismatic Views: A Look at the Growing Field of Transgender Art and Visual Culture Studies,” I assert that the visual is central to transgender history, and therefore art objects are key to the mining the depths of trans experiences that the most important texts in trans studies address. This journal issue was born out of the 2018 College Art Association panel called “Keeping Up Appearances: Historicizing Transgender Art,” which was the first in the conference’s history to focus entirely on transgender art history. For the second edition of the book Art and Queer Culture (Phaidon, 2019), I also increased the representation of international transgender and intersex artists in one of the defining volumes of queer art history through entries for Evelyn Taocheng Wang, Vaginal Davis, Giuseppe Campuzano, and others.
In addition to this work, I am also researching a second book project focused on disability in US-American art. This project transforms the methods I use in my investigation of how binary logics of sex and gender eclipse transgender history in art to ask how and to what end disability is seen—or not seen—in US-American art. Historians of US-American art have investigated how individual experiences of disability are portrayed in works of art like Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World or how disability history and culture manifests in US-American material culture. Yet, much remains unsaid about how disability itself is produced through art objects. By using methods of contemporary disability studies that characterize disability not as a product of individual capacity but rather of environmental accessibility to examine works of art, this project will question how we identify disability in the visual and material field and contribute to the emerging field of disability art history.
This project focuses on works of art made in the United States because of work by disability activists in the US that led to legislation like the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Objects at the heart of this project include: portraits and objects designed to disguise President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) disability; performances, paintings, and poetry by disabled artist Frank Moore (1946-2013) which Jesse Helms targeted for obscenity; the role of photographic documentation of the protest event Capitol Crawl by Tom Olin in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990; fiber sculptures by Judith Scott (1943-2005)—the reception of which raises questions about formalism as method for addressing works by neurodivergent artists; multimedia works by Park MacArthur (b. 1984) that interrogate issues of spatial accessibility for wheelchair users; and sound art, drawings, and installations by Christine Sun Kim (b. 1980) that explore visual language and her experiences as a Deaf artist in a predominantly hearing (art)world.