Last summer I witnessed the arrival of the Dolly Fiterman art collection on campus. Now retired, Fiterman was an influential dealer, collector and benefactor in the Twin Cities art scene. Each work from her collection had been carefully protected with bubble wrap and cardboard for its journey. As student assistants unwrapped the art, they revealed works by famous modern artists and intriguing pieces by new names, too. As an instructor of modern and contemporary art, I recognized a great opportunity in this generous donation: to lead an exhibition seminar for graduate students in art history using the works in the Fiterman collection.
An exhibition seminar differs from a regular graduate seminar in that, in addition to working on individual research projects, students produce a coherent exhibition with that research. Unlike typical graduate courses, having an exhibition focus in a course provides opportunities for student research to find a real-world audience beyond the classroom – the exhibition visitors who see the artworks, read the wall labels, and peruse the catalogue.
In 2007 I led a similar seminar on national identity and the historical design of printing types. The students’ research for that course resulted in a 2008 exhibition held at Minnesota Center for Book Arts titled “Face the Nation: How National Identity Shaped Modern Typeface Design, 1900-1960.” Their research is still accessible at the exhibition’s website (www.stthomas.edu/facethenation). I knew from that experience that another exhibition seminar would be a rewarding experience for students and teacher alike.
The objective of a seminar built around the Fiterman collection was for students to undertake original research and share what they found, both in the scholarly format of a journal article and in the functional format of wall labels and exhibition catalogue entries. Putting this in practice would lead us to ask this fundamental question: How does one undertake and present research about modern art effectively, engaging with complex ideas yet producing a report that is of practical use and limited length, and is coherent for a given audience? This is a question of great importance for the two traditional subdomains of the art history discipline: the academy and the museum. Neither is served by the notion that intellectual and pragmatic approaches to talking about art are strangers to each other. We would need to develop strategies and skills for integrating these approaches.
From Handling Artwork to Writing Museum Labels
For students to experience the full spectrum of research challenges, I required that each investigate both well-known and lesser-known, or even unknown, artists. For well-established artists, a bulk of existing scholarship should be consulted and synthesized in order to advance knowledge on the topic. On the other hand, for little-known artists, the challenge is not too many sources to consult but too few.
Whether there was a wealth or dearth of available information about a particular artist, students had the extraordinary experience of having direct access to the artworks themselves. Once the artists were assigned, preliminary research conducted and best practices for the physical handling of artworks reviewed, the seminar moved from the classroom to the art storage space that had been set aside in the Murray-Herrick Campus Center. For three weeks in the middle of the semester, students took turns presenting their research-in-progress and showing their works to the class.
Working with artworks directly is a special opportunity. In typical art history classes, students experience works of art as digital images projected on a classroom screen. With the actual art in front of us, we could perceive subtleties of color, texture and, of course, scale that are lost in a photo on a screen. In addition, as unique artifacts of human creation, artworks have what German cultural critic Walter Benjamin famously called an “aura,” which is lost or compromised in photographic reproductions. This artistic presence also added to the excitement of our class meetings in the storage space.
After conducting preliminary research on three artists, each student chose two artists to pursue further. I encouraged students to build persuasive arguments for their projects using ideas first advanced by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams in their book The Craft of Research. Analyzing the key parts of a research argument – the claim that the author wants to prove, the reasons for believing the claim, and the evidence that can demonstrate the persuasiveness of those reasons – we discussed how these parts manifested not only in scholarly articles but also in other formats: lectures, exhibition labels and exhibition catalogue entries.
Using feedback from me and from each other, students refined their arguments and entered the last stage of the seminar: expressing their research results in very different formats. For each project, students were required to write an essay suitable for an academic audience, and also a museum label and catalogue entry that would be suitable for an on-campus exhibition. Faced with this challenge, students acutely felt the differences between these two worlds. Readers of academic journals expect exhaustive research, clear citation of sources and a patient layout of a complex argument. Exhibition visitors, on the other hand, seek engaging and accessible written guidance for viewing the work of art in front of them. They are likely to skip labels that do not provide that guidance concisely. While the academic articles could each be 12 pages long, the museum labels could be no more than 150 words each.
Museum label writing is a specialized skill. The brevity and straightforwardness of the resulting text belies the effort required to make it work well. One of my favorite seminar meetings happened late in the semester, when Erika Holmquist-Wall, a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (and a 2006 graduate of our master’s program) visited our class to consult students on professional practices of writing effective museum labels. In small-group discussions that resembled professional label-editing workshops, Holmquist-Wall guided students in revising their texts to speak more effectively to museum visitors.
The research projects that the seminar students accomplished were remarkable, and hearing about their findings made me doubly excited about the gift of the Fiterman collection to St. Thomas. I was introduced to new artists and learned more about familiar ones from the diligent historical exploration my students undertook.
Fiterman played a major role in the Twin Cities art scene, and so it comes as no surprise that some of the creators represented in the collection were artists of local renown. I enjoyed learning more about the paintings of Aribert Munzner, the prints of Eugene Larkin, and the sculptures of Harriet Bart, for example. The hard-edged, high-saturation prints by Peter Busa looked familiar in style to me, and then student Marquette Bateman-Ek explained why: Busa also painted the bright, crisp murals on the Valspar building in Minneapolis.
Several projects expanded my understanding of the artworks by decoding their subject matter and symbolism. What was going on in Miriam Schapiro’s silhouetted version of a “Punch and Judy” puppet show? Student Kate Tucker deciphered the work, noting references to artist Frida Kahlo and unveiling the collage as a feminist effort both to address domestic violence and to point to an ancestry of female artists. What accounted for the spiraling shapes in the prints and drawings of Nigerian artist Uche Okeke? Student Lauren Greer discovered that those shapes were derived from uli, an art form used by women of the Igbo culture for body decoration and wall painting. Was there purpose to the seemingly random objects – nails, shoeprints, sunglasses – that appear in Pop artist James Rosenquist’s print in the collection? Bateman-Ek explained that they actually reflect an autobiographical story of a traumatic era in the artist’s personal life.
In addition to these decryption keys, student research uncovered the processes employed by artists whose works are in the Fiterman collection. French photographer Georges Rousse is represented in the collection by several photographs of messy, graffitied interiors. Student Carin Jorgensen explained Rousse’s method of entering a building slated for demolition, painting figures on its walls, and taking a photograph as the enduring memory of the doomed space. Student Barbara Quade-Harick traced the source of Nancy Graves’s brightly dotted abstract prints from the early 1970s to NASA maps of the moon. Artist John Raimondi is represented in the collection by two very different works: a realistic color drawing of wolves and a tabletop-size model of his monumental abstract sculpture “Cage.” In interviews with the artist, student Brady King discovered his manner of addressing human emotional concerns through a process of moving from realistic animal imagery toward ever more abstract visual language.
Some students particularly impressed me with the originality of their research. Alyssa Thiede learned that one of her artists, local painter Ta-Coumba Aiken, thought of his art-making as a healing process. Thiede considered this idea not only through typical art-historical methods, such as decoding the traditional symbolism of the paintings; she also looked into the very different field of health studies to gauge whether forms such as those in Aiken’s paintings fit with what current studies have concluded about the therapeutic effects of art in health care settings. Abby Hall looked into a late print by painter Milton Avery, and made a persuasive case that it reflected influence from his fellow New York artist and former student Mark Rothko, the noted abstract expressionist; heretofore, scholars had observed influence that Avery had on Rothko, but Hall proposed that late in his life it appears the influence went in the other direction as well, as indicated by both visual and biographical evidence. Would I believe that Avery the teacher could learn something from Rothko the student? After learning so much from the students in this seminar, I had no doubt that was possible.
The donation of artworks from Fiterman has added valuable, beautiful and interesting works of contemporary art to the collections of the University of St. Thomas. The “Insights into Modern Art” exhibition (on display in the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center lobby gallery through May 26) offers a chance for the public to see choice works from this collection. At the same time, it serves as a showcase of the pedagogy that this gift has enabled. The students in my seminar learned valuable lessons about working directly with contemporary art, a kind of professional training that was made possible by the donation. I look forward to future opportunities both to display the university’s modern collections in dynamic ways and to teach future students via such hands-on learning.
Read more from CAS Spotlight.