Grad Research: Natalie Zelt on The New Whitney


Exhibition photo by Natalie Zelt

Over the summer, AMS grad student Natalie Zelt took a trip to New York, where she saw the opening exhibition, called America is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum of Art’s brand new building. Here’s her review. 

This spring, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a new, eight-story building right off the Highline in New York’s meatpacking district. The museum has been dedicated to collecting art of the Americas since its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, started a “Studio Club” in 1918 to exhibit some of her favorite artists. Until recently its collection has had a decidedly limited definition of what might count as “American” in American art.  Still, the inaugural exhibition in the new building, titled America is Hard to See, madee a distinct effort to acknowledge both the contested history of the Whitney’s collecting practices and the art history of the US more broadly.  The installation of over 600 artworks was organized across all curatorial departments; painting specialists worked with curators of drawing, film, sculpture, photography and education and public programs staff in an attempt to weave a semi-chronological narrative across the four major gallery floors of the building. The resulting installation was admittedly jumbled. But, with the goal of examining the entire history of art in the US since 1910, the visual conversation should not be cohesive. Each floor showcased a series of touchstone themes, or what the Whitney termed “chapters,” that centered on an artwork that might pull objects across media together. At times this method of orbiting the selections around a specific object worked.  For example, in the 1925-1960 galleries on the seventh floor, “The Circus” an installation of Alexander Calder’s Circus juxtaposed with George Bellow’s sizable 1924 painting Dempsey and Firpo, was an effort to suggest the ways artists were engaging with mass culture and spectacle in the era. Other chapters, though, proved to function more like containers, keeping like works from infiltrating other themes or time periods. “Guarded View,” which included a selection of objects from the now (in)famous 1993 Biennial and 1994 exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, which specifically canonized the museum’s importance in art history.  The section, named after Fred Wilson’s installation of four headless black mannequins dressed in the uniforms of museum guards from the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, embraced artists’ acerbic institutional critiques as part of its evolution and asserted the importance of the identity politics in art, but kept the assertions of the artists bound to the early 1990s, rather than putting them in conversation with the histories they challenge.


Exhibition photo by Natalie Zelt

With walls of salon-style hangs that integrated multiple media, thematic chapters bumped up into one another, as did viewers, crowding to read object labels and exhibition text that was too sparse or oddly placed to make real sense of what dynamic contextual conversation might be happening. Making my way through the exhibition I got the distinct sense that there was disagreement among the organizers as to the amount of contextual information that is necessary in the physical gallery space. The full record of the exhibition and its 23 chapters is available online, and therefore already in the pocket of each visitor with a smart phone. So why spend the money and wall space on repeating yourself?  Why try to keep eyes up on the wall away from the phone?  Often it was a challenge to see the artworks speak to one another behind so many hunkered down smartphone zombies. And selfies were rampant, with selfie sticks flying everywhere, folks posing in front of a Basquiat or Pollock, immediately distributing it on social media and moving on to the next most famous name.  As my companion and I made our way through each floor it became clear that the America on view was particularly hard to see, not just because of the complex discourse of visual art, but because, at times, it is physically impossible to see past each other.

Sweeping surveys, for all their flaws, create space for more specific conversations. They are always a starting point to dive deeper and make resources available.  The pointed acknowledgment of the infinitely complex history of American art discourse at the Whitney was encouraging. Hopefully the revamped exhibition space and website will allow for the pursuit of many tightly crafted dialogues in the future.


America is Hard to See

Now closed

The Whitney Museum of Art


For full exhibition record online see:

Alumni Voices: Jessie Swigger, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University


Last summer, UT AMS alum Jessie Swigger put out a book called History is Bunk about the historical development of the Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. We recently spoke to Jessie, who is currently teaching at in the history department at Western Carolina University, about the book and her time at UT.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book, History is Bunk, and how you came to the project?

My interest in public history started when I took Steve Hoelscher’s Place and Memory course. My research paper in that course formed the basis of my Master’s Report. After comps, I knew that I wanted to continue to work with Steve Hoelscher and to grapple with issues of place, memory, and history.

It was around this time that I took a trip to Detroit, where I visited Henry Ford’s outdoor history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. I had read about Ford’s project and knew that it was one of America’s first outdoor history museums, but was struck by what seemed to be its unique landscape. The village mixes replicas and preserved buildings from across the country. Among the many buildings, Henry Ford’s birthplace, the Wright brothers’ cycle shop, and a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory populate the space along with two brick slave cabins from Georgia, a tenement farmer’s house, and a Cotswold cottage from England; an eclectic group of structures, to be sure. I was also surprised that so many people were eager to visit a museum that celebrated Ford given Detroit’s economic struggles. I wanted to understand the village and it became the focus of my dissertation.

Contrary to my initial reaction to the village, I found that in many ways Henry Ford’s conception of preservation was not atypical. Instead, Ford’s approach was similar to nineteenth century preservationists who defined the activity broadly. Preservation might mean, for example, creating a replica. The village’s interpretation of the past was, however, clearly linked to Ford’s own complex, and at times contradictory worldview. The village’s history after Ford’s death also proved fascinating. New administrators tried to maintain Ford’s vision while continuing to attract new audiences. Throughout the village’s history, administrators tracked visitor reactions to the site. Using journals written by guides, marketing surveys, and internal reports, I was able to consider how visitors encountered the village and how their responses informed the site¹s interpretive programming. Finally, the archives showed how the site’s marketing approach and interpretation were entangled with the history of the Detroit metro area. My book is a substantial revision of my dissertation and uses the village as a case study to examine the many contexts that shape history museums.

How is the work that you’re doing right now, as a scholar or a teacher or both, informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

My approach to teaching is influenced by the work I did at UT as an undergraduate and graduate student. As an undergraduate I took Main Currents with Mark Smith and as a graduate student I was a teaching assistant for Julia Mickenberg, Janet Davis, and Elizabeth Engelhardt. I still have my notes from all of these courses and have consulted them many, many times when writing my own lectures. We are also extraordinarily lucky that our program allows graduate students to design and teach their own courses. I still use much of the material that I developed during my time as an assistant instructor.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

The AMS Department does a great job of offering graduate students professional development opportunities. Take advantage of these. Take time to talk to faculty about how they approach research, teaching, and service. These conversations may not help you the next day, but will prove invaluable as you start your career. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there professionally–attend talks, work on publications, present at conferences, and definitely attend all happy hours.

Graduate Research + Exhibition: Natalie Zelt on LaToya Ruby Frazier

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Today, the first of two Austin-area exhibitions, both featuring the work of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and curated by the INGZ curatorial collective, opens at the UT Visual Arts Center, located in the ART building. INGZ’s Z is AMS grad student Natalie Zelt, who wrote her master’s report on Frazier. She elaborates on the project:

I had been familiar with Frazier’s work for a while, but I have this problem where I tend to be extra skeptical of photographers working in the rustbelt who deal with deindustialization. It wasn’t until I got to spend time in Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s exhibition “Witness” that I really got a sense of how her photographs work as both object and images on so many different registers. Seeing a solo exhibition really brings out the ways that she is conceptually using the history of photography as a tool in here work. That is part of why INGZ is bringing two exhibitions to Austin, both under the title “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Riveted.”

The black and white gelatin silver prints, the documentary style, her use of mostly analogue process and commitment to photography as an activist medium all harken to a history of photography that has been criticized for being aloof, marginalizing, and voyeuristic. Frazier is using this history and its criticisms when she makes these intensely personal and political images.

But the study and engagement with her work begs to move beyond a masters project. Thats part of why the INGZ collective decided to bring two exhibitions to Austin. At a moment when the very city around us is experience industry driven growth, not all that unlike the boom in Braddock in the 1950s, it is important for people to bear witness to LaToya’s experience.

The first exhibition is open at UTVAC until December 6th. Reservations for tours with the curators are available for classes and interested groups, please email for scheduling information. The second exhibition runs from January 15, 2015 to May 6, 2015 at ISESE Gallery in the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies (Jester A232A).


Alumni Voices: Jessie Swigger releases new book on Greenfield Village


We hope you’re enjoying the tail end of your summer, friends of AMS! Some exciting news from one of our alumni: Jessie Swigger, who received her Ph.D. from the program and is now a professor at Western Carolina University, has just published a new book entitled “History Is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. The book chronicles the historical development of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. The synopsis from the press:

In 1916 a clearly agitated Henry Ford famously proclaimed that “history is more or less bunk.” Thirteen years later, however, he opened the outdoor history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. It was written history’s focus on politicians and military heroes that was bunk, he explained. Greenfield Village would correct this error by celebrating farmers and inventors.

The village eventually included a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and home from Dayton, Ohio, and Ford’s own Michigan birthplace. But not all of the structures were associated with famous men. Craft and artisan shops, a Cotswold cottage from England, and two brick slave cabins also populated the village landscape. Ford mixed replicas, preserved buildings, and whole-cloth constructions that together celebrated his personal worldview.

Greenfield Village was immediately popular. But that only ensured that the history it portrayed would be interpreted not only by Ford but also by throngs of visitors and the guides and publicity materials they encountered. After Ford’s death in 1947, administrators altered the village in response to shifts in the museum profession at large, demographic changes in the Detroit metropolitan area, and the demands of their customers.

Jessie Swigger analyzes the dialogue between museum administrators and their audiences by considering the many contexts that have shaped Greenfield Village. The result is a book that simultaneously provides the most complete extant history of the site and an intimate look at how the past is assembled and constructed at history museums.

Go forth and buy the book here!

Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis and “In the Company of Cats and Dogs”


The Department of American Studies is deeply concerned with public scholarship and finding innovative ways to reach out to the greater community around us. In that vein, we’re happy to report that Dr. Janet Davis has consulted on a brand new exhibition at the the Blanton Art Museum entitled “In the Company of Cats and Dogs.” The exhibition features works of art featuring – surprise – cats and dogs, including works by Pablo Picasso as well as some video clips of cats. Like Nora the Piano Cat. Seriously. No word yet on whether Keyboard Cat is also featured, but we can hope…

In addition to providing her own expertise on animals and humanities, Janet also incorporated the exhibit into her Plan II Signature Course: students in her class wrote papers on specific works, which the curators then used to generate some of the labels in the gallery. Truly a wonderful and fruitful bridge between the classroom and the community.

More details on the exhibition can be found here, and we highly recommend you check it out this summer!

Grad Research: JFK, Reality, and Mediation at the Sixth Floor Museum

I probably don’t have to tell you that Austin is a vibrant, exciting place to live and work: with a killer live music scene, ubiquitous tacos, and barbecue that’ll make you weak in the knees, it certainly ranks near the top of my favorite cities in America list.

That said, one of the benefits of living in Austin has also been having opportunities to explore other parts of Texas, from Marfa to Houston. This past weekend, I decided to venture out of the Austin city limits to Dallas, a city I had only ever experienced through way too many layovers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Though Dallas has its share of tourist destinations, my motivation was research-related. At the moment, I’m knee-deep in my Master’s Report, which explores representations of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in two video games, and how their odd, perhaps ethically questionable gamification of the event – an incredibly traumatic moment in American history – reconfigures and negotiates our understanding of history and politics. What kind of residue is left in our historical memory if we play these games? What do they do to our imaginations of power, official state accounts of history, our ability to interact with history and meaning-making? How do we understand history if we only experience it virtually?

But to me, a 25-year old, Kennedy’s assassination always felt remote, a moment in a textbook rather than a lived, traumatic experience. So I embarked on a journey to the place where it happened, to make it feel as real as it probably could to someone who was never there: Dealey Plaza, and the Texas State Book Depository, now a museum dedicated to Kennedy and the assassination.

Placard on the museum's exterior (click to enlarge; photo by author)

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