Fields of Study: Modern and Contemporary Art

The study of modern and contemporary art at Penn is expansive in geographic range and media. Supported by seven core faculty members, teaching areas focus on European, American (including some Latin and South American), and East Asian painting, sculpture, architecture, urbanism, prints, time-based art, photography, popular culture, decorative arts, cinema and new media. The recent additions of the Jaffe Chair in Cinema Studies and the Sachs Chair in Contemporary Art have added new breadth and generous programming resources. Established relationships with the Institute of Contemporary Art on Penn’s campus and the Philadelphia Museum of Art offer several students per year the opportunity to give spotlight lectures. Graduate students may also serve in the Print Room of the PMA as Zigrosser Fellows or as film programming fellows. Many other institutions frequently collaborate with the department, including the Arthur Ross Gallery at Penn, the Slought Foundation, and the Foundation for Self-Taught Artists, offering students the chance to organize exhibitions and serve as research fellows or curatorial interns. Graduate students may earn Certificates in Cinema Studies, or in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies while fulfilling the requirements for the History of Art Ph.D.

Core faculty interests: 

Karen Beckman’s teaching and research focus on the history of photography, film, and video art, as well as on the theoretical discourses surrounding these practices. She is currently writing about artists’ uses of animation, particularly within the context of war. She is a core faculty member of the Program in Cinema Studies and a senior editor of the journal Grey Room.

A historian of modern architecture and urbanism, David Brownlee has a special interest in the political and philosophical contexts of artistic practice.  He has written on a wide range of topics, including the monumental classicism and city planning of the early twentieth century and the work of Louis Kahn, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi.  He participates actively in Philadelphia’s lively design community.

Julie Nelson Davis teaches the art and architecture of East Asia from the early modern through the contemporary (ca. 1600 to the present).  Davis is a leading scholar of the prints and paintings of the “images of the floating world” (ukiyo-e); her work engages this subject both in its own time and in twentieth-century discourses.

Because Michael Leja began as a curator and critic of contemporary art and has been working his way backward through time ever since, he might seem to be fleeing the contemporary and pursuing some imaginary origins of the modern. In any case, he continues to work on Abstract Expressionism, Marcel Duchamp, Morgan Russell, and especially the beginnings of industrialized picture production circa 1850.

Christine Poggi’s scholarship and teaching focus on the European early twentieth century avant-gardes, especially Cubism, Futurism, and more recently, the Russian avant-gardes. Her work also engages transatlantic art and criticism of the 1960-70s and contemporary installation and performance. She is a member of the Graduate Group in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, Italian Studies, and an affiliated faculty member of the Program in Slavic Languages and Literatures.  During 2011 to 2014, she will serve as Faculty Director of the Alice Paul Center, and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program.

With a continuing interest in the uses of biography and history in the art of the United States and the African Diaspora, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s teaching focuses on issues of class, gender, sexuality, and race.  In 2012, she is co-curating an exhibition of twentieth-century Afro-Brazilian art at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery and organizing a symposium on circum-Atlantic visual culture. Her recent course offerings include “Art Since 1945,” “American Art Between the Wars,” and “Biography and Art History.”

Kaja Silverman, who joined the department last fall, after nineteen years at Berkeley, is currently working on photography and time-based art. She also has an abiding interest in painting, from the late-nineteenth century to the present, continental philosophy, and literary modernism, and all of these interests are reflected in her teaching. Silverman was recently awarded a Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, and will be using it to fund graduate fellowships in contemporary art, sponsor public conversations with artists, and host four major conferences.

History of Art Department faculty members who also contribute to teaching and advising students in modern and contemporary art include Timothy Corrigan (cinema), Renata Holod (modern Islamic visual culture and urbanism), and Michael Meister (modern South Asian art and architecture). Members of the Graduate Group who work on modern and contemporary art include Annette Fierro (modern and contemporary European architecture), Catriona McLeod (word and image, modern German cultural and aesthetic theory), Robert St. George (American vernacular architecture and material culture), and Liliane Weissberg (critical theory, Frankfurt School, photography).


Current and future projects led or coordinated by Penn faculty:

- The Sachs Program in contemporary art will begin in Fall 2011 with the series,  “Animate Art!” Four international artists working with animation will speak at the ICA in conjunction with the graduate seminar, “The Art of Animation”: Robert Pruitt, Kota Ezawa, Robin Rhode and Jennifer Levonian. This series is co-sponsored by the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund.

- The first Mellon conference will take place in February 2012, and be keyed to an exhibition of Charline von Heyl’s paintings at the ICA. It will focus on abstract painting. The second is scheduled for February 2013, and will be linked to an exhibition of the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Merce Cunningham exhibition at the PMA. It will focus on authorship. The topic of the third conference will be exhibition. It will take place in 2014, and be coordinated with the ICA, the PMA, Slought, and (hopefully) the Barnes.