RESEARCH SCOPE AND MOTIVATION
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 nonbinary people—have been made to appear (or disappear) in objects. Because transgender and nonbinary people do not fit neatly within fixed gender categories, art history that follows binary logics of male/female can make these figures difficult to discuss. These art historical approaches also wrongly reenforce ideas that gender variance is only a recently emergent phenomenon. Thus, I look to interdisciplinary methods of trans of color critique and intersex, queer, and disability studies when considering sex and gender in objects to expand our understanding of how binary gender structures became dominant and to demonstrate how new methods can expand discourses on gender throughout the discipline of art history. Using this approach in my current research produces new insights into how hierarchies of gender and embodiment that organize US-American culture appear in art. Furthermore, this work also demonstrates how the visual and material information that objects contain gives critical access to aspects of transgender history that are not yet written and why aesthetic and material production are so central to transgender histories and lives.
Deep Cuts: Transgender History in American Art after World War II engages histories of gender non-conformity and transformation in art from the past eighty years to expand discourses on gender across the discipline of art history and to highlight the central role that aesthetics and practices of making have had within transgender history. This project argues that artists who transgress fixed and binary gender ideologies are not peripheral actors in the history of American art but have been part of some of its most recognized moments, movements, and collections since World War II. Through careful formal analysis and archival research, this book further argues for the unique capacities that abstract painting, figurative sculpture, portrait photography, and narrative filmmaking each have for addressing transgender histories. Such analysis helps us see the ways in which aesthetic and material practices have been central to transgender life and history. Finally, this book also argues that, because gender is so often understood and produced through the appearance of the body, its form, and the materials used to adorn it, the methods of art history have a particularly potent potential to support growing discourse on the capacities and stakes of transgender embodiment.
During World War II, Nazi occupation forced the centers of modern art and sexological medicine to move from Europe to the United States. Deep Cuts: Transgender History in American Art after World War II, 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, drawings, and handmade books by Greer Lankton (1958-1996) present gender transformation as a form of visual and material 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. My new work for chapter five will focus on how artist Tourmaline’s (b. 1983) films and photography deploy historical imagination and speculative futurity to centralize joy, leisure, and play amidst ongoing legacies of white supremacist and transphobic violence (physical, rhetorical, and institutional). My final chapter 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.
By focusing on how these works of art undermine strict and stable divisions between categories of “man” and “woman,” this book 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 2020 book Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages and David Getsy in his 2015 book Abstract Bodies—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.