Course Highlight: ART 565 “Seminar in Modernist Art and Theory: Before and After Gender"

March 23, 2023

Examining Works that Complicate Categorical Notions of Gender

Co-taught by A&A Professors Bridget Alsdorf and Irene Small, ART 565: “Seminar in Modernist Art and Theory: Before and After Gender” revisits major approaches to feminist art history from the nineteenth century to the present, while considering how queer, trans, masculinity, and decolonial studies have transformed art-historical analysis.  When the class recently visited Princeton University Art Museum’s offsite classroom, students were confronted with wildly varied artworks that complicate categorical notions of gender. With still lifes and portraits by Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet, abstract sculpture by Zilia Sánchez and Lynda Benglis, mixed media works by Wangechi Mutu, and daguerreotypes from the mid-nineteenth century (to name a few!), the classroom was filled with engaging objects – and vibrant discussion. “We had the opportunity to engage in a series of stimulating discussions,” said A&A graduate student Shing-Kwan Chan. “Our first-hand observation of the pieces allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of their materiality and their place in broader cultural, historical, and artistic contexts.”

Alsdorf and Small began by framing the works as “things,” as opposed to objects, referencing Martin Heidegger’s philosophical essays on art, among other texts.

The class forms a semicircle around a table to examine a Cezanne sketch
The class discusses Paul Cézanne's Page of Studies with Bathers and Self-Portrait (1875–78), on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation since 1976.  In the foreground, Aimai-no-bi (Ambiguous Beauty) (1995) by Yasumasa Morimura 森村泰昌, an anonymous gift to the Princeton University Art Museum.
A student examines relief with two semicircular shapes the come to four protruding points

Andrew Kensett takes in Amazons from the Erotic Topologies series by Zilia Sánchez, Princeton University Art Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 

Rather than using the “things” on view as invitations to free association, Alsdorf encouraged students to struggle with “art as a material thing,” resisting, at least at first, the flight to metaphor by holding on to the idea that “what you see is what you see.” 

“In every class, Irene and I push students to generate discussion and debate through the simple act of description. What do you see? How can you ground your response to an artwork in its specific material features? Sometimes the simplest questions are the the most difficult to answer. But being surrounded by artworks of various media makes their materiality undeniable. Their range of meanings are no less multivalent for being rooted in concrete, describable forms. Bearing down on that progression from description to interpretation goes hand in hand with thinking critically about gender and how it appears.” – Bridget Alsdorf

Watercolor of three pears in a still life

Paul Cézanne, Three Pears (ca. 1888–90), The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
(Photo/Bruce M. White)

The class first turned to three things by Cézanne from the Pearlman Collection (on long-term loan to the PUAM), which is among the most important collections of Cezanne’s works on paper in the world.  Closely examining Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (Nature morte avec carafe, bouteille, et fruits)Three Pears (Trois poires), and a sketchbook Page of Studies with Bathers and Self-Portrait, the class identified material evidence of the social conditions and desires that drove the artist’s work. Meyer Schapiro’s psychoanalytic interpretation of Cézanne’s still lifes lent a provocative platform for unpacking these clues. Students noted the fruits in Three Pears, for example, as positioned so close to each other and yet not touching, resulting in a keenly charged tension that almost simulates movement. Schapiro cited this as an example of Cezanne’s futile struggle to control erotic energy.

Having thoroughly evaluated Cézanne’s works as a class, students formed smaller groups to delve into the remaining objects in the room. 

Professors Irene Small and Bridget Alsdorf examine a bronze sculpture of a baby

Professors Irene Small and Bridget Alsdorf examine Baby by Sir Jacob Epstein, Princeton University Art Museum, Bequest of Walter E. Rothman


“Bridget and I sought to create clusters of objects in which comparison would serve to illuminate resonances, but also dissonances and defamiliarization.  For example, how is the violence of picturing enslaved women made palpable, but potentially also redirected, when we think about the scalar differences between a daguerreotype small enough to be held in one’s hand (and which quite literally reflects the viewer) and Carrie Mae Weems’ large-format photoconceptual works, which build on a similar set of historical archives? How might a fragment of an ancient Roman Endymion sculpture and a mid-twentieth century monumental bronze of an infant allow us to think about how sculpture stages bodies and subjectivities in formation? These are works of art that would never meet within a historical or curatorial orbit; having them available in the study room, however, really allows us to use the museum as a laboratory.” – Irene Small

Three students examine a group of 8 collage works

Examining Chorus Line (2008) by Wangechi Mutu, Princeton University Art Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund


A&A graduate student Nicole-Ann Lobo emphasized the benefit of seeing these objects first-hand: "Getting to examine Yasamusa Morimura's Aimai-no-bi in person was truly amazing because it would be very difficult for a digital reproduction to capture the intricate shape of the fan as it obscures and reveals the posed Morimura.” She said. “The play of light and movement of the object in space really enlivened my understanding of Morimura's artistic technique with this work, and getting to visit the collection to engage this and other objects was inspiring.”

Two students examining Manet portrait

A&A graduate student David Saiz evaluates Édouard Manet's Young Woman in a Round Hat (ca. 1877–79), The Henry and Rose Pearlman Founda on loan since 1976 to the Princeton University Art Museum

Visiting A&A graduate student Ivana Dizdar focused on Édouard Manet’s Young Woman in a Round Hat (ca. 1877-79).  “I was struck by the androgyny of the figure’s face—uncharacteristic for Manet—and how it seems to challenge standard conceptions of Parisian femininity,” she said. “In particular, the smudge across the figure’s eyes is a peculiar detail that conceals her gaze and obscures her expression. Why, I wondered, does Manet engage in a gesture that effectively obfuscates and anonymizes his subject?”

Together with a classmate, A&A graduate student Andrew Kensett investigated Lynda Benglis’s Omekron (1974), first noticing its near-human scale.

“We imagined it hanging vertically [as intended] at eye-level with its leg-like appendages dangling toward the floor," said Kensett. "Seeing the work this way, we speculated, would amplify its creaturely quality and heighten our empathetic identification with it, as bodies confronting another body. Curious about what Omekron was made of and how it was made, we peeked inside its tangled and knotted coils and saw plaster-impregnated cheesecloth, unpainted and bone white. We had our answer, but there was, we agreed, something faintly embarrassing about this kind of looking, as though we were investigating not an inert thing but a body entitled to a form of privacy that we were violating.”

Professor Small and several students examine the Benglis sculpture on the table.

Professor Irene Small and students discuss Omekron (1974) by Lynda Benglis, Princeton University Art Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund


Professors Irene Small and Bridget Alsdorf and students view Kara Walker's Means to an End series.

The class views Kara Walker's The Means to an End ... a Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995),  Princeton University Art Museum purchase, Felton Gibbons Fund 

For Chan, Kara Walker's artwork The Means to an End... a Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) was a highlight of the visit. “It left a lasting impression with its affective imagery,” he said. 

The collection of objects provoked lively discussion among all participants.  As Lobo put it,  “the course has been a fantastic experience, especially given the diversity of perspectives and research interests of my peers.”