RESEARCH SCOPE AND MOTIVATIONS
In a predominantly sighted society, identity tends to describe how one sees oneself and how one is seen by others. Visual art not only records and produces those identities, but it also pictures hierarchies of power between them. My research investigates how marginalized identities—especially those of transgender, intersex, and disabled people—have been made to appear (or disappear) in Western art. Art history that follows binary logics of male/female and able/disabled have made many of these figures difficult to see. Thus, I rely heavily on interdisciplinary methods of transgender, intersex, and disability studies to generate greater nuance within discussions of sex, gender, and disability in art history. My specific focus on transgender and disability history in art is rooted in my lived experience of gender transition and my proximity to disability. However, I am also invested in using interdisciplinary research to center objects that constitute an array of racial and class-based identities that have been rendered invisible by traditional art historical methodologies. After all, no identity can be fully understood through visual information alone.
Titled Deep Cuts: Transgender History in American Art after World War II, my dissertation asks: what happens to traditional narratives of gender in the history of American art when we consider transgender artists and works that specifically illuminate transgender history and identity? This project contends that works by and featuring Forrest Bess (1911-1974), Candy Darling (1944-1974), Greer Lankton (1958-1996), and Cassils (b. 1971) do three things: first, they demonstrate why sex and gender cannot be determined through visual information alone; second, they show how social and scientific histories can be interwoven to carefully assess the appearance of sex and gender transformation in art; and third, they highlight the subtleties of sex and gender that can emerge throughout art history when “male” and “female” are considered just two of many categories of identity. I focus on works of art made in the United States after WWII because the US became a springboard for contemporary global movements in art and transgender medicine after Nazi occupation forced the centers of both modern art and transsexual medicine to move from Europe to the US. Each chapter in this dissertation progresses chronologically to follow charged shifts away from terms like transsexuality for most of the twentieth century and toward transgender in the twenty-first.
In my first chapter, I explore how the abstract symbolism in paintings by Forrest Bess (1911-1974) allowed Bess 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 likely have been seen as perverse ideas. The next chapter reads the only two nude images of Warhol Superstar Candy Darling through her journals and letters describing a deep desire for physical gender transition to argue that Warhol’s investment in her presented Darling with a double-edged sword: one that required her to swallow one of her deepest desires in order to achieve the fame she equally longed for. In chapter three, I examine how Greer Lankton’s dolls from the 1980s and 1990s functioned as surrogate materials for the artist’s body, vehicles for imagining the potential of the body beyond the limits of medicalized gender transformation, and sites of play between binary extremes of male and female genders. In my last chapter, I consider how Cassils performance works from the early 2000s through to the present challenge twentieth-century American models of medical gender transformation and lay bare the capacity that all bodies have to be masculine, feminine, or both.
By focusing on how works of art undermine strict divisions between categories of “man” and “woman,” my dissertation will construct a more capacious picture of gender in American art after World War II than has been presented in the field of art history thus far. Transgender art history is a nascent discipline emerging from works of scholarship and criticism like those in the 2017 anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility that problematize the very idea of visibility within objects of contemporary transgender culture. A few scholars, such as Roland Betancourt in his forthcoming book Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages are working to add historical depth to this emerging subfield of art history. I aim to do just the same within the more recent past of American art. As the works that I focus on all visualize aspects of transgender history in the United States that are difficult to access through language alone, my dissertation will further demonstrate why art objects are key to mining the depths of transgender experiences throughout space and time.
PUBLICATION HISTORY AND PLAN
The first chapter of this dissertation will be published in the Archives of American Art Journal no. 61 in spring 2022. Elizabeth Ault at Duke University Press has also expressed interest in potentially working with me to transform this dissertation into a book. This process will include revising my existing text and adding two additional chapters on artists Tourmaline (b. 1983) and Chris E. Vargas (b. 1986). In my new fifth chapter, I will describe how films, performances, and installations by Tourmaline bring critical attention both to ongoing legacies of white supremacist, transphobic violence (physical, rhetorical, and institutional) and to the power of speculation imagination, futurity, and leisure in the production of contemporary transgender art. My sixth chapter will be chapter-length epilogue dedicated to Chris E. Vargas’s Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA), that will discuss how MOTHA cultivates novel approaches to archiving transgender art and visual histories while challenging mainstream institutional forces that tend to render gender transformation invisible or make gender appear to be more intrinsic and stable than it is. 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 have 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 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 American art. Historians of 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 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 globally unprecedented legislation like the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Artworks at the heart of this project include: portraits of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) that disguise his disability; performances, paintings, and poetry by Frank Moore (1946-2013) who created San Francisco’s Outrageous Body Revue cabaret in the late 1970s and was later targeted by Jesse Helms for obscenity; photographic documentation of the protest event Capitol Crawl by Tom Olin that was pivotal to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990; fiber sculptures by Judith Scott (1943-2005)—the reception of which raises questions about the limits of formalism in 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.