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  • >> So good evening everyone.

  • My name is Michael Taylor, the director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College,

  • and it gives me great pleasure to welcome you

  • to the 8th Annual Dr. Allen W. Root Contemporary Art Distinguished Lecture

  • at the Hood Museum of Art.

  • I would like to thank Allen and Janet Root, who are in the audience with us today,

  • and to also recognize their granddaughter, Gillian,

  • who is a member of the class of 2014 at Dartmouth.

  • Dr. Root graduated from Dartmouth in 1955 as did his son Jonathon in 1982

  • and his daughter Jennifer in 1995.

  • This family bleeds green, and we love that.

  • Because of their father's passionate interest in contemporary art, Jonathon, Jennifer,

  • and their other son, Michael Root, established this lectureship in honor of their father,

  • a renowned pediatric endocrinologist and also a collector of modern and contemporary art.

  • It is a great privilege for me to introduce this evening's speaker, who is Dr. Richard Meyer.

  • Richard Meyer is one of the foremost art historians in the field

  • of 20th Century American Art and Visual Culture.

  • He is the professor of art history at Stanford University and has also taught at the University

  • of Southern California; the Courtauld Institute in London, my alma mater;

  • the University of Pennsylvania; and Columbia University.

  • At USC, he was also from 2008 to 2011 the director of visual graduate studies

  • and was an affiliated faculty member in American studies and ethnicity.

  • He received his BA from Yale University and his PhD in art history from the University

  • of California Berkley, and his doctoral dissertation led to the landmark publication,

  • "Outlaw Representations, Censorship in Homosexuality in 20th Century American Art,"

  • which was published to great critical acclaim by Oxford University Press in 2002.

  • He is also the author of "Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles" in 2011

  • and has 2 publication projects forthcoming in 2013.

  • The first, for which he is co-author with Catherine Lord, is titled "Art in Queer Culture"

  • and will be published by Phaidon Press.

  • The second, which relates to the topic of this evening's lecture, is titled,

  • "What was Contemporary Art" and will be published MIT Press.

  • So both in 2013.

  • Richard was also the co-editor of Weegee in Naked City in 2008, and in 2003,

  • he edited the volume, "Representing the Passions, Histories, Bodies,

  • and Visions" for the Getty Research Institute.

  • In 2006, Richard was co-editor of a 2-part issue of the journal, GLQ,

  • a journal of lesbian and gay studies.

  • He has served as curator of exhibitions as well including "Naked Hollywood:

  • Weegee in Los Angeles" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011

  • and "Warhol's Jews, Ten Portraits Reconsidered," at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2008.

  • I saw both of those exhibitions, and they were absolutely outstanding.

  • He's the author of numerous journal articles and edited volumes

  • with such thought-provoking titles as "Big Middle Class Modernism,"

  • "Artists Sometimes Have Feelings," "Gay Power Circa 1970," "Visual Strategies

  • for Sexual Revolution," "Mind the Gap," "Americanist, Modernist, and the Boundaries

  • of 20th Century Art," "The Jesse Helms Theory of Art," "Have you Heard the One About the Lesbian

  • Who Goes to the Supreme Court," "This is to Enrage You: Grand Fury and the Graphics

  • of AIDS Activism," "Robert Mapplethorpe and the Discipline of Photography,"

  • and "Los Angeles Meant Boys: David Hockney, Bob Mizer,

  • and the Lure of Physique Photography" to name but a few.

  • Those are just my favorite titles [laughter].

  • Richard has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Charles C. Eldredge Prize

  • for Outstanding Scholarship in American Art,

  • which was awarded by the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Mellon Award for Excellence

  • in Undergraduate Mentoring; and the Albert S. Raubenheimer Award for Outstanding Teaching,

  • Research, and Service to University of Southern California.

  • His talk this evening is entitled, "What was Contemporary Art: An Introduction."

  • Please join me in welcoming Dr. Richard Meyer.

  • [ Applause ]

  • >> Thanks.

  • I first met Michael Taylor 6 years ago in Philadelphia when he was a curator

  • at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I was a visiting professor of contemporary art history

  • at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was immediately struck by his generosity of spirit

  • and of intellect, and I'm delighted to have this opportunity to reunite with him and to meet all

  • of you here at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth.

  • This is my first time visiting not only Dartmouth

  • but New Hampshire so I'm very happy to be here.

  • The book project I was working on at the time I met Michael, the one I finally finished

  • and I'm to preview for you here today, that book project addresses the tension

  • between contemporary art and art history.

  • How it asks can contemporary works be part of the history of art

  • when those works have not been time tested or vetted, when the necessary critical

  • and historical distance has not yet been achieved.

  • How in deed can there even be something called contemporary art history?

  • And I'll remind you that I was a visiting professor of contemporary art history at Penn

  • but even as I accepted the position I was sort of wondering, well what is this strange beast,

  • and that's where the book comes in.

  • So I'm showing you.

  • This is the cover of the book.

  • It features a young woman, one Miss Polly Cotter, facing off against a Plexiglas sculpture

  • by Alexander Calder at the Plastics Exhibition held

  • at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston in 1940.

  • The sculpture had recently won first prize in an art contest sponsored

  • by the chemical manufacturing company Rohm and Haas, the inventors

  • and commercial distributors of Plexiglas.

  • Created by the company as a shatter-proof alternative to glass in 1933,

  • Plexiglas was introduced to American markets within the context of military production,

  • so it was first used for cockpit covers, wind screens, and weapon mounts.

  • The sculptural competition in 1939 underscored the possibility of an aesthetic rather

  • than strictly utilitarian or militarist application of the material.

  • As the winning entry in the competition, and here's the sculpture from a different angle,

  • it's the same sculpture you're seeing here.

  • As the winning entry, Calder's sculpture was given pride of place in the Rohm

  • and Haas Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

  • That's what I'm showing you on the screen on the right.

  • Displayed on a circular table to allow viewers to approach from all sides,

  • the sculpture was set against a series of 7 backlit dioramas,

  • each of which demonstrated a different property, flexibility, lightness, luminosity of Plexiglas,

  • or it's sister plastic crystallite.

  • And there you see the pavilion, which features Plexiglas.

  • The showcase is Plexiglas, crystallite, and Calder's sculpture.

  • In their very datedness, the picture of Polly Cotter from 1940 and the Rohn and Hass pavilion

  • from the world fair in 1939 in their very datedness, these pictures recall

  • that the category of contemporary art is not a new one.

  • All works of art were once contemporary to the artist and culture that produced them.

  • Part of the task of the art historian then is to retrieve a vivid sense of the world

  • into which an art work was introduced and so to measure the distance

  • between its contemporary moment and the scholar's own between say 1939

  • when Plexiglas had only recently been introduced and was still kind

  • of a marvel of a material and today.

  • Our return to the past must acknowledge the impossibility of forging a comprehensive account

  • of the artwork as it really was while nevertheless attending

  • to the specificity and heft of history.

  • By asking what was contemporary art, I do not mean to suggest that contemporary art is now

  • over or that we have arrived at a post-contemporary moment

  • of cultural production, which some have suggested.

  • Rather, I mean to retrieve selected episodes in the history of once current art so as

  • to reclaim the contemporary as a condition of being alive, to,

  • and alongside other moments, artists, and objects.

  • So something like what we now call contemporaneous, that is existing along with

  • or alongside, alive at the same moment as.

  • Today, I want to share with you and excerpt from the book's introduction and a brief sketch

  • of its principal chapters, and I'm giving fair warning that we'll be jumping around quite a bit

  • between different art historicals, examples and contexts.

  • One of those contexts, which I've just briefly introduced to you, is the plastics exhibition

  • at the Institute of Modern Art in 1940, the Institute of Modern Art,

  • which to great controversy would rename itself the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1948.

  • And there's a chapter of the book that looks at that controversy and through

  • that controversy looks back at the history of the institute of contemporary/modern art.

  • In the book's introduction, which I'm going to turn to now, I seek to explain how

  • and when contemporary art emerged as part of the discipline of art history, and in doing so,

  • I revisit the doctoral thesis of a now eminent art historian.

  • The introduction is called, "The Art Historical Postmortem."

  • This is an excerpt from the introduction.

  • In 1969, a young woman named Rosalind Krauss filed a dissertation in the department

  • of fine arts at Harvard University.

  • Fifteen years later, after she had emerged as one of the leading critical

  • and art historical thinkers of her generation, Krauss would explain the unorthodox means

  • by which she had chosen her dissertation topic, and here is a quote,

  • a long quote from Rosalind Krauss, "I was in fact thinking of a topic

  • in 19th century European Art that would have been much palatable to my professors at Harvard,

  • but it was going to be difficult for me to go to France

  • for a year in the middle of this marriage."

  • She had recently wed Richard Krauss.

  • "I didn't know what to do until one morning I woke up to an announcement on my clock radio

  • that a sculptor had been killed in Vermont.

  • I thought it was Tony Caro, because they said Bennington, Vermont, where he was teaching.

  • I thought, oh, how terrible, because I knew Tony.

  • Then after a couple of sentences, they repeated the name, and I realized it was David Smith,

  • I thought, um, I now have a thesis topic.

  • I knew they would never allow me to do a dissertation on someone

  • who was alive, but he had just died.

  • I went rushing to Harvard to announce this as my topic."

  • Within the logic of this anecdote, the shift from the imagined death of Anthony Caro

  • to the actual one of David Smith constitutes a passage from personal loss

  • to professional opportunity, from the register of friendship to that of scholarship,

  • from the terrible thought that a sculptor Krauss knew firsthand had perished to the recognition

  • of the use value of an entirely different sculptor's demise.

  • Death here delivers the artist into history or at least into the history of art.

  • Sealed off from the possibility of new work, stylistic shifts, imaginative breakthroughs,

  • or creative disappointments, Smith's artistic output could at least be scrutinized,

  • interpreted, and catalogued by the art historian.

  • Krauss in other words could now write a thesis on David Smith but only