Art History

The art history curriculum at Sarah Lawrence College covers a broad territory historically, culturally, and methodologically. Students interested in art theory, social art history, or material culture have considerable flexibility in designing a program of study and in choosing conference projects that link artistic, literary, historical, social, philosophical, and other interests. Courses often include field trips to major museums, auction houses, and art galleries in New York City and the broader regional area, as well as to relevant screenings, performances, and architectural sites. Many students have extended their classroom work in art history through internships at museums and galleries, at nonprofit arts organizations, or with studio artists; through their own studio projects; or through advanced-level senior thesis work.

Sarah Lawrence students have gone on to graduate programs in art history at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Bard, Williams, Yale, University of Chicago, Oxford University, and University of London, among others. Many of their classmates have pursued museum and curatorial work at organizations such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago; others have entered the art business by working at auction houses such as Sotheby’s or by starting their own galleries; and still others have entered professions such as nonprofit arts management and advocacy, media production, and publishing.

2017-2018 Courses

Art History

First-Year Studies: Art and History

Open , FYS—Year

The visual arts and architecture constitute a central part of human expression and experience, and both grow from and influence our lives in profound ways that we might not consciously acknowledge. In this course, we will explore intersections between the visual arts and cultural, political, and social history. We will ask in what ways works of art can be used as documents for understanding history and will seek to understand how different approaches to the interpretation of art can be used to reveal different kinds of understanding of the conditions and concerns of the people who created them and of their audiences. What meaning did these works originally convey, and how did they communicate—both consciously and unconsciously? We will also discuss a number of issues of contemporary concern; for instance, the destruction of art, free speech and respect of religion, and the art market and the museum. Our work will include analysis of images and readings from the works of art historians, historians, social scientists, philosophers, and theorists. We will endeavor to understand the work from the point of view of its creators and patrons, as well as its changing reception by audiences throughout time. To accomplish this, we will need to be able to understand some of the languages of art. The course, then, is also a course in visual literacy, the craft of reading and interpreting visual images on their own terms. Students need to be able to schedule time on some Saturdays to take the college van to Manhattan to do assignments or attend the occasional class at various museums in New York City.

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Islamic Art and Society

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course will explore the architecture and visual arts of societies in which Islam is a strong political, cultural, or social presence. We will follow the history of some of these societies through the development of their arts and architecture, using case studies to explore their diverse artistic languages from the advent of Islam through the contemporary world. We will begin with an introduction to the history surrounding the advent of Islam and the birth of arts and architecture that respond to the needs of the new Islamic community. We will proceed to follow the developments of diverse artistic and architectural languages of expression as Islam spreads to the Mediterranean and to Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, exploring the ways in which arts can help define and express identities for people living in multi-confessional societies. We will then draw this exploration into the present day, in which global economics, immigration, and politics draw the architecture and artistic attitudes of Islam into the global contemporary discourse. Our work will include introductions to some of the theoretical discourses that have emerged concerning cultural representation and exchange and appropriation in art and architecture. One of our allied goals will be to learn to read works of art and to understand how an artistic expression that resists representation can connect with its audience. And throughout this course, we will ask: Can there be an Islamic art?

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Romanesque and Gothic: Art and Architecture at the Birth of Europe

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course explores the powerful architecture, sculpture, and painting styles that lie at the heart of the creation of Europe and the idea of the West. We will use a number of strategies to explore how monumental architecture and expressive narrative painting and sculpture were engaged in the formation of a common European identity and uncover, as well, the architectural vestiges of diverse groups and cultures that challenge that uniform vision. These are arts that chronicle deep social struggles between classes, intense devotion through pilgrimage, and the rise of cities and universities that could both advocate genocide and nurture enormous creativity, in styles both flamboyant and austere, growing from places as diverse as rural monasteries to Gothic cathedrals. The course will explore those aspects of expressive visual language that link the buildings to social history, the history of ideas, and political ideology.

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Modern and Contemporary Art: 1865 to the Present

Open , Lecture—Year

This two-part, introductory lecture course tracks the history of modernism in art from roughly 1865 to the present, focusing on European and American contexts. The first half of the course moves from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to the advent of abstraction and the interwar avant-gardes (Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism). The second half begins with artistic responses to the traumas of World War II and ends with examinations of the postmodernist “critique of representation” and contemporary artistic practices. Examining key works in detail will help us unpack some of this history’s guiding concepts, including the following: 1) notions of the avant-garde; 2) concepts of artistic subjectivity; 3) interactions among art, forms of scientific research, and methods of technological production; 4) artistic responses to war and historical trauma; and 5) interactions among art, popular culture, and mass production. As we move forward, we will also reflect on the methods and theories of art history, meditating on the ways in which art historians structure the procedure of looking at and historicizing images, objects, and exhibitions.

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Depicting Decadence

Open , Seminar—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required.

In this seminar, we will examine fin-de-siècle reactions to the depiction of decadence in the painting, printmaking, music, and decorative arts of the era. Analyzing the debates of critics and artists in Paris, Vienna, and London, we will write about the newly emergent figures of the anarchist, the aesthete, la femme nouvelle, and the dandy and will then craft researched arguments about cultural anxieties underlying the psychological phenomena of synesthesia, ennui, and hysteria. We will ask: Is the dandy a subversive hero, as Charles Baudelaire suggests? Is ornament a crime? What made figures like the new woman and the androgynous aesthete so threatening? Readings include: Deborah Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France; Max Nordau, Degeneration; Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime; Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa; Richard Wagner, The Artwork of the Future; Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams; and Carl Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

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A Paradox for Painters: European Art of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Open , Seminar—Fall

In Annibale Carracci’s painting of St. Margaret—an Early Christian martyr—an altar is inscribed, “Sursum Corda” (Lift Up Your Hearts). An exploration of the multiple meanings of this admonition, epigram, and emblem form the basis of this course. How is 17th-century art to achieve this lifting up? Lifting up from what and to what? Are all the arts and all the subjects of the visual arts supposed to serve this same purpose? Does this admonition pertain to aesthetic, social, and historical issues, as well as the theological and political? What about the linguistic implications: Can an exalted language exist side-by-side with a dynamic, naturalistic vernacular? The course will cover the art of 16th-century Italy as it frames the questions that painters, sculptors, and architects throughout Europe mediated in the following era, commonly called the Age of the Baroque. Included will be studies of major artists such as Caravaggio, Bernini, Rubens, and Rembrandt, among others.

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More or Less: Architectural Theory From Modern to Contemporary

Open , Seminar—Fall

Readings in this course will focus on major statements made by architects, critics, and philosophers dealing with the built landscape from 1900 to the present. Authors include Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin Heidegger, Jane Jacobs, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Sterling; readings will range from Ornament and Crime (1909) to Junkspace (2000) and beyond. Emphasis will be on close reading of texts, historical context for ideas, and buildings that are prescribed, described, or proscribed by theory in practice. The first assignment will deal with the generation of critical theory in a manifesto; the second will be about pragmatic design practice; the last, green design. Class will be broken into firms that will develop a response to a particular architectural program and project: the sustainable design of a retrofitted cultural center and residential/commercial area at Sarah Lawrence College.

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The Greeks and their Neighbors: The Hellenization of the Mediterranean From the Homeric Age to Augustus

Open , Seminar—Fall

Although the Romans come to mind most immediately as the people who absorbed and passed on the achievements of Greek civilization to the Western world, the transmission of Greek culture to Western posterity was a far more complex process involving various other peoples. Already during the early first millennium BC, Greek culture began to affect the neighboring peoples to the east, such as the Phrygians, Lydians, and Lycians, as well as the Greeks’ western neighbors in Italy: the Etruscans and Romans. In time, the Phoenicians and their western colony of Carthage and the western regions of the great Persian Empire would increasingly come to adopt many aspects of Greek material culture, art, and religion—even before the Asiatic conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors. It was this long and varied process that the Romans gradually inherited and fused into a pan-Mediterranean Greco-Roman Pax Romana, beginning with Augustus. The course will examine this process from the perspective of artistic monuments and literary or historical sources, as well.

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The Age of Arthur: Post-Roman Britain in History and Legend

Open , Seminar—Fall

The fate of the western Roman provinces during and after the collapse of the imperial center in the fifth century remains a major concern for historians of Late Antiquity, yet no single former Roman province has proven to be as obscure and resistant to serious historical study as Britain. Through much of the 20th century, a substantial body of historical research was devoted toward developing the figure of Arthur, a Post-Roman ruler or warlord who strove to preserve something of Roman imperial order and culture while stemming Germanic or Anglo-Saxon settlement. More recently, however, the tide of scholarship has turned against a historical Arthur. The fact remains that Arthur is unattested in any historical sources of the late antique or early medieval periods. Nor is there much evidence that Anglo-Saxon settlement was effectively shaped or contained by native Romano-British resistance. Consequently, the course will examine the origins of Arthur as a figure of legend rather than history, and we will examine the factors that led to Arthur being accorded historical status—first in the early medieval period and then in modern scholarship. At the same time, we will attempt to establish the basis for a genuine dynastic and political history of Britain from the fifth to the seventh centuries.

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The Politics of Aesthetics From David to Impressionism

Open , Seminar—Spring

This seminar will look at European art produced between 1789 and 1889, between the transformations of the French Revolution and the rise of Impressionism. We will focus primarily on painting, with forays into the history of photography and glimpses into developments in printmaking and sculpture. Topics include the development of the urban and artistic modernity, the role of women both in the atelier and in the public sphere, the construction of an imaginary orient, the rise of romantic individualism, and the notion of the avant-garde. The course will include visits to the Frick, the Met, and the Museum of Modern Art. Students will write about individual artworks, analyze texts and artworks as they are situated within the politics of their time, and craft researched papers making arguments about some aspect of 19th-century European art. Readings include Winckelmann’s “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture”; Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution; selected letters and notes by Eugène Delacroix from his journey to North Africa in 1832; Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”; and Paul Signac, From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism.

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The Long Front of Culture: Pop Art, Architecture, Design, and Film

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

This seminar aims at recovering the cross-disciplinary history of Pop aesthetics. Like the early Pop thinkers in 1950s Britain, we will operate under the assumption that all forms of making—from painting and printmaking to exhibition, technological research, and film—represent equal partners in the “long front” of the Pop project. In the process, we will pursue an international history of Pop aesthetic production in parallel with the canonical, New York-centric narrative. The seminar is structured by three broad themes: 1) Pop art’s relationship to the various nations in which it arose (in Europe, East Asia, and North and South America); 2) key concepts and technologies central to the Pop experiment; and 3) the afterlife of Pop in art from the 1970s to the present. Major questions include the following: What strategies have Pop practitioners mobilized to represent, integrate, or intervene in technologies of image production and mass cultural distribution? In what ways has Pop forwarded alternative models of culture, consumption, and subjectivity? And the perennial question: To what extent is Pop a critical or affirmative project? Exhibition visits will supplement in-class discussion.

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Exhibition as Form

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

This seminar examines the history of exhibition making as an artistic technique from the interwar avant-gardes to the present. We track this most cross-disciplinary medium as it evolves from the space of public debate, propaganda spectacle, and scientific demonstration to a technology of display and curation. Special attention will be paid to instances in which artists mobilized the exhibition form to construct new experiences of space by constructing utopian environments, staging spaces of debate and agitation, or imagining new forms of communication between and among objects, images, and viewers. The following figures will be among those we examine in detail: El Lissitzky, Marcel Duchamp, Frederick Kiesler, Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Hamilton, Marcel Broodthaers, Louise Lawler, Group Material, Fred Wilson, Mike Kelley, Fia Backström, and Camille Henrot. Major questions include the following: On what formal grounds can we conceptualize exhibition design as an aesthetic medium? What are the relationships between exhibition designs and other artistic techniques, such as photomontage, film, performance, installation, and Web-based art? What forms of sociality and types of subjectivity are staged in exhibition spaces? And finally, what is the relationship between curating and the design of exhibitions? We will couple discussion with visits to exhibitions.

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Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

1) This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter-narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. 2) Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent in terms of both degradation and a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. 3) Postcolonial writers and artists, therefore, continue to renegotiate identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of language, ethnicity, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms? This seminar on the semiotics and politics of culture is based on works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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Hindu Iconography and Ritual 

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This seminar focuses on the visual cultures of India and Nepal. Hindu traditions encompass a dramatically diverse range of beliefs and practices. Iconography provides a pathway toward decoding that diversity. How are the proverbial 330,000 gods and goddesses understood to be manifestations of a common unity? How does the Hindu pantheon encode gender with respect to status, functions, and roles? Where are caste hierarchies reflected among the emblems held by multi-armed deities? In what ways does iconography narrate the history of Aryan and Dravidian interactions? Through a study of painting, sculpture, popular lithographs, and multi-media sources, this seminar offers a window into the social histories, cultural practices, and spiritual values of Indian civilization.

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Understanding Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Open , Seminar—Fall

Perhaps few issues are more contentious in the environmental arena than those surrounding struggles over rights to private, as well as common, property resources. What is property, and how is it made? Who makes property? How are property rights performed, publicized, and enforced? What is a commons, and what is common property? Debates over the “commons” implicate ideas of citizenship, community, the public good, justice, and governance. Controversies over public space and community gardens, genetic recombinant research and rights to the genome, and North-South disputes over rights to biodiversity in the geographic South, as well as debates over property in the Middle East, form some of the hotly contested terrain of property rights and the commons use and ownership. Property rights on a variety of scales, from the biomolecular to whole organs and organisms, from individual trees to whole ecosystems, are examined in varied geographic, biological, cultural, and historical contexts. This course is an introduction to ideas and cultures of property (private, public, and collective); debates, claims, and arguments over the commons; and the environmental and social consequences of different property regimes.

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Landscapes in Translation: Cartographies, Visions, and Interventions

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Background in humanities, social sciences or arts preferred. Advanced, open to students with developed skills in critical thinking and analysis of texts.

This course investigates the multiple ways in which landscapes have been imagined, interpreted, physically shaped, and controlled in a variety of historical and contemporary sites. The first section, Cartographies, explores ideas of landscape in Euro-America, Southeast Asia, and colonial-era Africa. The literatures of critical geography and political ecology provide theory and cases illuminating connections between the position of the cartographer and presuppositions about the nature of the territory being mapped and managed. We examine how landscapes on a variety of scales, from “bioregions” to nations, are imagined, codified, and transformed through representational processes and material moves. The second section, Visions, investigates how landscapes are embodied in fine arts and literature, as well as in garden and urban design. Readings draw on examples of landscape design in colonial New England and Indonesia and on contemporary examples of landscape design in response to climate change. We also study reworkings of the urban landscape to integrate more productive, biologically diverse “fringes,” as well as rooftop farms and apiaries. The third section, Control: Emerging Security-Scapes, investigates the rise of militarized “security-scapes” or “surveillance-scapes,” dating from slavery in the United States to the Department of Homeland Security in the post-9/11 era. We analyze the visual surround and landscapes seen by remote drone “pilots” scanning Los Angeles and Somalia and surveillance of the occupied Palestinian landscapes; we draw upon websites, advertisements, and new scholarship in security studies, media studies, and social theory.

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Introduction to Film History, Part I

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course provides an introduction to the study of film from its “prehistory” in phantasmagoria, magic theatre, and chronophotography, through its technological development and institutionalization in the 19th century, to the diverse range of production modes in the mid-20th century. Lectures will explore key developments such as early cinema and the cinema of attractions, documentary and ethnographic cinema, the Hollywood studio system and genre filmmaking, the historical avant-garde such as German Expressionism, Soviet montage, Dada and Surrealism, early American avant-garde, and film noir. Students will acquire fundamental skills in film analysis and interpretation. Weekly screenings will be complemented by lectures devoted to in-depth analyses of films and their historical contexts. Assignments will emphasize close reading and sociocultural inquiry.

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Introduction to Film History, Part II

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course provides an introduction to the study of film and its history from the mid-20th century through contemporary digital technologies of production and circulation. Lectures will explore key developments such as neorealism, La Nouvelle Vague, cinéma vérité and direct cinema, Third Cinema, Yugoslav Black Wave, New German Cinema, postwar American avant-garde, New Hollywood and the blockbuster, Bollywood, video art, the essay film, and multimedia environments. Students will acquire fundamental skills in film and media analysis and interpretation. Weekly screenings will be complemented by lectures on in-depth analyses of films and their historical contexts. Assignments will emphasize close reading and sociocultural inquiry.

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The New Elements: Mathematics and the Arts

Open , Lecture—Spring

This lecture will explore the bearing of modern mathematical ideas on 20th-century Western creative and performing arts. Euclid’s collection of geometric propositions and proofs, entitled The Elements, is an archetype of logical reasoning that, since antiquity, has had a broad influence beyond mathematics. The non-Euclidean revolution in the 19th century initiated a radical reconception of not only geometry but also mathematics as a whole. We will investigate, on the one hand, mathematical content as a source of new forms of expression, including non-Euclidean geometry, the fourth dimension, set theory, functions, networks, topology, and probability. On the other hand, we will study mathematical practice and the artists and writers who, intentionally or not, reflect modern mathematical attitudes in an attempt to break with the past. While this lecture does not aim for a comprehensive survey of the entire last century, we will investigate a sequence of case studies, including: Russian Suprematist art; the Bauhaus school in Western European architecture and design; Serialism in Western music; OuLiPo, “a secret laboratory of literary structures” in post-war French literature; and the origins of postmodern dance in 1960-70s North America, among others. This course assumes no particular expertise with mathematics or cultural history. Course readings and a program of art and performance viewings, both in lecture and off campus, will establish a basis for investigating the relevance of fundamental mathematical concepts to modern literature and the arts. Group conferences will provide practice for students, working with such mathematical concepts as they relate to particular artistic practices.

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Art and Visual Perception

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. —John Berger

Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been interested in measuring and explaining the phenomena of visual perception. In this course, we will study how the visual brain encodes basic aspects of perception—such as color, form, depth, motion, shape, and space—and how they are organized into coherent percepts or gestalts. Our main goal will be to explore how visual neuroscience and art-making can inform each other. One of our guides in these explorations will be the groundbreaking gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who was a pioneer in the psychology of art. The more recent and equally innovative text by the neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, will provide our entry into the subject of neuroaesthetics. Throughout our visual journey, we will seek connections between perceptual phenomena and what is known about brain processing of visual information. This is a course for people who enjoy reflecting on why we see things as we do. It should hold particular interest for students of the visual arts who are curious about scientific explanations of the phenomena that they explore in their art, as well as students of the brain who want to study an application of visual neuroscience.

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Body and Soul: Drawing From Life

Open , Seminar—Year

For a visual artist, the human form provides a subject unlike no other. Descriptively, emotively, biologically, and culturally, the figure is a mirror, the representation of who we are as well as who we wish to be. For the artist, a true understanding of the human form—its unique formal, symbolic, narrative, psychological, and historical role—comes through prolonged and detailed exploration. The potential of the human form as an artistic resource will be the focus of this yearlong course. Daily exercises, both in and outside the studio, that stress the development of personal vision and disciplined work habits will be key to growing each student’s observational and technical skills. Over the course of the year—using both observation and memory, as well as a variety of materials and methods and an analysis of the relationships between gesture and form, rhythm and movement, and structure and biology—will lay the foundation necessary for individual expression.

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Color

Open , Seminar—Year

Color is primordial. It is life itself, and a world without color would appear dead and barren to us. Nothing affects our entire being more dramatically than color. The children of light, colors reveal and add meaning, giving richness and fullness to all that surrounds us. A vehicle for expressing emotions and concepts, as well as information, color soothes us and excites us. Our response to color is both biological and cultural. It changes how we live, how we dream, and what we desire. Using a variety of methods and materials, this course will focus on an exploration of color, its agents, and their effects. Not a painting course, this class will explore relationships between the theory, perception, use, and physiology of color. Clearly defined problems and exercises will concentrate on understanding and controlling the principles and strategies common to the visual vocabulary of color, (hue, value, saturation, form, context, texture, pattern, space, continuity, repetition, rhythm, gestalt, and unity), as well as the personal, psychological, symbolic, expressive, and emotional consequences of that visual vocabulary.

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