Border Control: On the Edges of American Art


Border Control: On the Edges of American Art

Thursday 25 and Friday 26 May 2017
Tate Liverpool

Convened by Julia Tatiana Bailey (Tate) and Alex J. Taylor (University of Pittsburgh)
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art

This major international conference led by Tate Research was a two-day event bringing together historians of art and visual culture to share new scholarship exploring the crossed boundaries and expanded limits of art from the United States. Border Control: On the Edges of American Art was presented as the culmination of the three-year Tate Research project Refiguring American Art and coincided with a related display at Tate Liverpool.

Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Saint Martin Landscape’ 1979
Ellsworth Kelly
Saint Martin Landscape 1979
© Ellsworth Kelly



Cécile Whiting
Chancellor’s Professor, University of California, Irvine

The Panorama and the Globe: Expanding the American Landscape in World War II

During World War II, maps that pictured troops advancing and retreating across national borders, along with photographs and newsreels documenting death and destruction in locations around the world (including the naval base of Pearl Harbor, the tropical rainforests of Guadalcanal, and the beaches of North Africa), prompted a change in painted representations of landscape in the United States. My larger project looks at how American artists recast the terms of landscape painting as it had been practiced in the 1930s, broadening its scope from the local to the international, and from the pastoral to the anti-pastoral. At the Border Control conference, I will present one aspect of the project in which I analyze the ways in which artists depicted landscapes joining the national and the international. In particular, I will examine paintings by Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry that adopted a panoramic mode, literally and metaphorically widening the horizontal scope of their paintings, to encompass both the United States and Europe. As a counterpoint, I will discuss the painting The Rock in which Peter Blume attempts to fit the globe into his landscape.


Session 1: Performing the Political

Monica Steinberg
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Southern California

Political Re-presentation: Artist-Candidates and the Boundaries of the Electoral Process

This paper, extracted from a larger article-in-progress examining artists running for political office in the 1960s and 70s, takes as its principal case study West Coast-based artist Lowell Darling’s 1978 candidacy for governor of California. Deploying common electioneering strategies of the era, Darling campaigned within the boundaries of US law, yet did so in a way that highlighted just how far those boundaries stretched. For example, Darling’s campaign staff distributed paraphernalia emblazoned with the slogan ‘Vote Beyond the Grave,’ which pointed to ongoing electoral fraud. To shake hands and kiss babies, the artist used an enlarged, artificial hand mounted on a stick and a pair of rubber lips—deconstructing the intersection of the personal and the political. Receiving 1.8% of the total votes, Darling’s campaign followed established electoral models as a means of spotlighting the legal boundaries of those models. The project questioned the limits of performance art by placing the artist as an actual contender within the American political system. Thus, I argue that Lowell Darling’s candidacy, alongside contemporaneous endeavors by Bruce Conner, Susanna Dakin, and Vermin Supreme, tested the boundaries of the law by operating within and critiquing its parameters, and ultimately, re-presenting the problematics of electoral representation.

Catherine Spencer
Lecturer, University of St Andrews

Simultaneous Experience: Performance Art and Psychological Border Zones

During the 1960s and 1970s, American performance art was profoundly shaped by what in 1959 C. Wright Mills termed the ‘sociological imagination’: an ability to connect micro-level individual psychology with macrocosmic socio-political shifts. However, many artists increasingly rejected the exploration of everyday behaviour and normative social codes in favour of addressing inner experience, as they interrogated the disciplinary and policing dynamics of traditional social science. In The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) Theodore Roszak observed that sociology ‘was giving way steadily to psychology.’ Rather than dismissing these countercultural alignments, this paper argues that the experiential performances of practitioners like the American Carolee Schneemann and the Argentine Marta Minujín constitute an attempt to undermine not only the geographic border zones of nationality, but moreover the concretization of behaviour around the divisions of race and gender. Focussing on the transnational exploration of simultaneity, group work and exile in the performances both artists contributed to Expo ’67 in Montreal and to Minujín’s Soft Gallery in Washington DC (1973), together with Schneemann’s contribution to the 1967 London Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, I argue that each attempted to prioritize experience over behaviour, and thereby refute the technocratic co-option of the ‘sociological imagination’. 

John A. Tyson
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, National Gallery of Art

‘On Sale at the Fondation Maeght’: Hans Haacke’s Un-American Art

In 1970, Dore Ashton curated L’Art Vivant au Etats-Unis at the Fondation Maeght—a French nonprofit museum that granted its namesake, gallerist Aimé Maeght, a significant tax exemption. Nationality was Ashton’s primary rubric for the show. Furthermore, many of the artists selected to represent America were themselves represented by Maeght’s Paris gallery. The catalogue avoids mentioning contemporary politics and segregates works by medium, defining them as paintings, sculptures, or events. This paper will contextualize and analyze On Sale at the Foundation Maeght (1970), the event Hans Haacke—then a ‘resident alien’ in the United States—produced.

On Sale consisted of an audio recording of the inventory of prints in the foundation’s shop. Listing author, title, date, and price, Haacke revealed that the nonprofit actually had thousands of francs’ worth of artwork for sale. The stream of art information was punctuated by news reports, phoned in live from the regional paper Nice-Matin. Discussions of the Vietnam War breached the art space’s borders. On Sale was a subversive act (indeed, the director attempted to stop it): using the language of Proust—not Whitman—and the lingua franca of commerce, the antagonistic, ‘dematerialized’ performance prompted contemplation of the art apparatus; it simultaneously critiqued its host and the US.

Faye Gleisser
Assistant Professor, Indiana University

Artist Residency as Cultural Conduit: Sarabhai Patronage and the Stakes of Sponsorship

Since the 1960s, the prominent Sarabhai Family of Ahmedabad, India has hosted American artists in an artist residency program. Participants such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, John Baldessari, and Lynda Benglis, stayed for three-month intervals and created site-specific work, much of which is displayed in the family’s villa to this day. Despite the artists’ high profiles, discussion of their experiences at the Sarabhai estate and the larger implications of this interchange within the emergence of modern-day globalization remain unexplored. More importantly, the conditions of constraint and the terms of collaboration that underwrite this residency program and the artists’ relationship to it, the city of Ahmedabad, and the family patrons call for a reconsideration of how co-determined histories of internationalism and modernism become legible. While my larger book project examines the decades-long residency, this paper focuses on the works initiated by Lichtenstein and Benglis in India during the 1970s and the reception of the work in American institutions. Through these examples, I analyze the paradigm of the artist-in-residence program, and argue that the Sarabhais’ initiative exposes a divergent story of patronage, cross-cultural exchange, and influence that intervenes in narratives of place and production most often deployed when discussing the global traffic of American art.

Session 2: Entering the Common Culture

Anthony Grudin
Associate Professor, University of Vermont

Policing Art’s Borders: Pop Art and Vulgarity in the 1960s

As Jacques Rancière has demonstrated, the policed boundary between the vulgar and the cultured constitutes one of the foundational borders in western aesthetics. Defined from the outset by its dalliances with vulgarity, Pop Art was necessarily forced to reckon with this border. What’s more, the advertising industry of the early 1960s was developing new strategies to attract the attention of a vast section of the American populace—the working class—that had hitherto mostly been considered an unworthy target for commercial culture. Pop artists’ attitudes toward these strategies were divergent to say the least. Roy Lichtenstein recognized their power, but was careful nevertheless to distance himself and his work from their ‘vulgar’ qualities. Patty Muschinski and Claes Oldenburg found the new strategies fascinating, and attempted to harness their vast new potential. For his part, Andy Warhol seems to have maintained a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward mass culture—recognizing its great appeal, but also its mendacious promises of cultural participation and social mobility. Together, these four artists demonstrate that there was no singularly ‘Pop’ response to the cultured/vulgar problem—instead, Pop is better understood as a set of radically disparate responses to a contested border.

Marina Moskowitz
Reader, University of Glasgow and Edwin Pickstone, Lecturer, Glasgow School of Art

Interdisciplinary: A Conversation about Rudolph Ruzicka

* Rudolph Ruzicka was an American printer and type designer, who worked for the Merganthaler Linotype Company, one of the largest manufacturers of typesetting equipment.
* Rudolph Ruzicka was an American printmaker, whose wood engravings were collected by major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

While both of these sentences are accurate as ‘nutshell’ descriptions of a career that started with boyhood art classes at Hull House in Chicago and ended with numerous accolades such as the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, they connote professional trajectories that often have been considered separate disciplines, both in their practices and in historical and critical engagement with them. Whether it has been classified as commerce or art, engaged with text or image, produced by machine or by hand, studied by book history or art history, or, indeed categorised as ‘printing’ or ‘printmaking,’ Ruzicka’s work is an excellent case study to consider the commonalities across these seemingly artificial borders. This paper will examine key examples of Ruzicka’s work to understand how his practices and products—from the tools he used, to the rigour of his approach to structure and composition, to his frequent invocation of landscape—demonstrate interdisciplinary cohesion.

Suzanne Hudson
Associate Professor, University of Southern California

‘Toward a Happier and More Successful Life,’ or When Veterans Made Art in the Modern Museum

Histories of American art typically describe a progression from pre-industrial craft to art for art’s sake. Freed from the burden of function, modern art was separated from daily life and newly intended for exhibition within the growing institutions of the art world. Despite its pervasiveness, this narrative obscures the ways that art remained useful in the long twentieth century.

When and under what circumstances did people in America come to believe that making art was good for them? Further: Where did such ideas come from and where were they put into practice? How did these ideas shape the development of the field known as art therapy and how did the privileging of process above the finished product as exemplified within art therapy contribute to American visual modernism?

These questions animate my larger research project. At the Border Control conference, I will present more focused research regarding the development of art and occupational therapy for veterans within the Museum of Modern Art during World War II, posing questions of the uses and ends of process, as well boundaries between making for its own sake and the nomination of some such experiments as art within the adjacent galleries.

Sarah K. Rich
Associate Professor, Penn State

Ellsworth Kelly’s )Abs(traction

My paper is about the now famous photograph of Ellsworth Kelly holding the painting Brooklyn Bridge against his nude body in 1958.  I talk about the painting and the photograph in connection with Kelly’s proposal for window displays at Tiffany & Co. that year (the commission was never fulfilled, but the studies remain) and I discuss a number of previously unpublished sources for the painting and others in that group.  The commission and the photograph, as well as designs that Kelly made for Paul Taylor’s dance troupe that year, make an argument about the body—specifically the stretching or twisting torso—as a model for thinking about painting and its relation to the outside world.  At the end, I connect this issue of a twisting/stretching torso to other paintings of oblique fields that Kelly titled after city streets that year (such as Wall and Broadway, held in the Tate collection) in which the artist investigates the center of painting as something that must be crossed transversely, in a sort of geographical contrapposto.  

Session 3: Traversing Space, Transcending Place

Fiona Curran
Senior Tutor, Royal College of Art

Between the Earth and the Sky: Planetary Borders in Vija Celmins’ ‘Untitled (Desert/Galaxy)’

Vija Celmins Untitled (Desert/Galaxy) from 1974, presents a dual image drawing of a dark night sky filled with stars and other illuminated celestial objects juxtaposed with a close-cropped view of a desert floor. As well as using her own photographs of the deserts surrounding her home in LA, Celmins also gathered a number of her photographic resources from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This work will act as a provocation to trace the entangled histories of the Cold War ‘space race’ with the development of satellite technologies and atmospheric/meteorological monitoring beyond earth’s borders in the post war period. A picture emerges of the material significance of the earthbound landscapes that supported the growth of these technologies and their extra terrestrial destinations, recoupling the earth with the sky, the present and the remote, and the temporal dimensions of past, present and future. Far from representing an untouched ‘natural’ realm that transcends the earthbound to present us with a heavenly firmament, Celmins’ image captures a particular historical period. It signifies a moment when space became a new frontier for US technological development, cultural and territorial expansion, and in which the cosmos became thoroughly militarized.

Matthew Holman
PhD Candidate, University College London

‘Borders Meandering But Determined’: Becoming an ‘Apatride’ with Joan Mitchell and John Ashbery (1959–65)

In an April 1965 article for ARTnews, American poet and critic John Ashbery wrote that his friend, the painter Joan Mitchell, then living in Paris as he was, was ‘not an expatriate, but an apatride.’ This word, in French, translates most closely as ‘stateless,’ and signifies displacement, uprootedness, and a loss of one’s home—national or otherwise. However, perhaps surprisingly, Ashbery traced Mitchell’s decision to become a ‘professional exile’ to a period when her painting moved from an all-over style of hotly-toned abstraction to a sombre firmness of line which bordered on figuration. The liminal spaces of watersheds, basins, and sea ports emerge as Mitchell’s painterly subject, sometimes flowing, sometimes congealing. As they talk reluctantly about moving back home, and contest the indifference of a Parisian art scene, what can be said of their shared turn to seascapes or water crossings? This paper will interrogate the condition of life as an apatride in, principally, Mitchell’s ‘new black’ pictures (1950–65) and Ashbery’s respondent art criticism, whilst also turning to his poetry (e.g. The Skaters, 1964) to better understand the relation of her painting to nature and nation which has, as Ashbery attests, never really been clarified.

Elizabeth Buhe
PhD Candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU

Sam Francis’s Polycentric Abstraction

At a time when American modernist painting self-assuredly claimed cultural dominance and its critics championed a progressive reduction of form, Sam Francis twice circled the globe in 1957 and 1958, an act that thematizes his distrust of conventional framing systems, whether national borders or high modernist orthodoxy. The physical dislocation and perceptual destabilization of travel was crucial to the resultant paintings, which are wholly abstract, yet likely derive from landmasses viewed aerially, thus challenging assumptions about how we experience and record space. Francis traveled with these canvases—titled Japan Line, Round the World, or Mexico— and worked on them across multiple studios worldwide. They thereby manifest the globalized structure that produced them while modeling a ‘polycentrism’ that —counters privileged centers of artistic production and opposed MoMA’s institutional exportation of American art.

Francis’s travel paintings set the stage for his subsequent edge works, vast white expanses with rainbow hued frames. He produced the edge paintings in 1960s Los Angeles, alongside his involvement with liquid light shows, sky paintings, and mentorship of young artists like James Turrell. Assimilating the ethos of these expansive modes of artistic production into his own work, Francis reinvested painting with urgency by challenging high modernism’s disregard of anything outside the painting’s frame. The edge works thus quote painting’s conventional border only to subvert it.