Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellows in American Art

The Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art are awarded to graduate students in any stage of Ph.D. dissertation research or writing, for scholarship on a topic in the history of the visual arts of the United States, including all facets of Native American art. Although the topic may be historically and/or theoretically grounded, attention to the art object and/or image should be foremost. Since 2015, the awards have included the Luce/ACLS Ellen Holtzman Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, named after the Luce Foundation’s Program Director for American Art, who retired that year after 23 years of service. The fellowship is awarded to an emerging scholar of demonstrated achievement whose research and writing concerns American modernism and art of the 1950s and 1960s.

This program is made possible by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read more about this fellowship program.

Please note: affiliations shown are as of time of award. Please click on fellows' names for current information.

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Watch "Emerging Themes and Methods of Research: A Discussion with ACLS Fellows," an annual meeting session featuring recent ACLS fellows. 

Marissa Howard Baker
Marissa Howard Baker  |  Abstract
This dissertation examines the aesthetics of black figuration in the Black Arts movement from 1967 to 1972 by examining the early projects of three Chicago-based art collectives: the Organization of Black American Culture, the Chicago Mural Group, and AfriCOBRA. The project demonstrates how these artists developed an aesthetics of abstracted figuration to reimagine the black body as a container for a new psychosocial subjectivity. It reassesses debates over the politics of abstraction and figuration that posit an opposition between aesthetic and social commitments. It challenges the idea that these artists used figuration to narrowly define concepts of black embodiment; rather they pushed the black figure to the edge of abstractness not to signal its ambivalence, but its potential future. The project argues that these figurative works can be understood as the last images of black modernism, when it seemed possible to reconstruct a black subject and build a black nation.

Doctoral Candidate, Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago  -  The Nation Within: Chicago’s Black Arts Movement and the Figuration of Black Liberation

Kimberly Minor
Kimberly Minor  |  Abstract
Art historical studies of portraiture raise philosophical questions regarding issues of social performance, gender identification, and the conception of selfhood. This dissertation examines drawings and painted bison robes in which portraits play a role, seen as conscious and unconscious reflections of the shifting terms of cultural engagement between Upper Missouri indigenous artists and Euro-Americans in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Analyzing painted robes and drawings by Mandan artists Mató-Tópe and Sih-Chida, paintings by Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, and the expeditionary journals of Prince Alexander Maximilian zu Wied, this study foregrounds the body as a site of sensory experience to visualize how the indigenous masculine body was located in a system of discipline and control that the indigenous artists otherwise rejected. Collectively, these objects, portraits, and primary texts suggest the complex nature of masculine identities negotiated by both Natives and non-Natives.

Doctoral Candidate, Art and Art History, University of Oklahoma  -  Pictographic Motifs: Memory and Masculinity on the Upper Missouri

Kim Bobier
Kim Bobier  |  Abstract
This dissertation investigates 1980s and 1990s US-based artwork that quoted the civil rights movement through images linked to its leaders, iconic black protest slogans and gestures, and anti-racist demonstrations. Such quotational practices made visible the civil rights movement’s unrealized possibilities at the end of the twentieth century. This period of multiculturalism, characterized by institutional measures to embrace cultural diversity, spurred disputes about identity-based activism as well as artists’ interest in drawing connections between the historic civil rights movement and the late twentieth century’s politics of identity, which promoted the civil rights of people marginalized on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. This study illuminates how artists—specifically Lorraine O’Grady, Glenn Ligon, Zoe Leonard, Alfredo Jaar, and Kerry James Marshall—who critically appropriated visuals of the civil rights movement, participated in debates over American representations of black agency and civil rights struggle.

Doctoral Candidate, Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  -  Representing and Refracting the Civil Rights Movement in Late Twentieth-Century Art

Emma Rose Silverman
Emma Rose Silverman  |  Abstract
For nearly a century a massive sculptural environment has stood in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Built by a working-class Italian immigrant, in the 1950s the Watts Towers underwent a remarkable transformation from eccentric hobby to internationally renowned monument. This dissertation connects the Watts Towers’ emergence as a public icon with its impact on Ferus Gallery artists, members of the black avant-garde, and authors of the emerging category of outsider art. It argues that the history of the Watts Towers’ influence and institutionalization reveals a turning point in contemporary American art when boundaries that had been drawn along lines of geography, material use, and social identity began to dissolve. Using the Watts Towers as a thread to connect seemingly disparate artists and visual discourses, this dissertation paints a picture of the complexities involved when art’s insiders move out and its outsiders move in.

Doctoral Candidate, History of Art, University of California, Berkeley  -  From Eyesore to Icon: Outsider Art, Racial Politics, and the Watts Towers

Rachel Hooper
Rachel Hooper  |  Abstract
In the decade after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, art history professors were hired for the first time at Vassar, Yale, and Harvard, and three major encyclopedic art museums were founded—the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Using a series of artworks juxtaposed in exhibitions and lectures as case studies, this dissertation shows how concepts of race were defined and redefined by art histories between 1864 and 1877. The study is thereby both an institutional critique that exposes racial politics as a driving force behind the development of art history as well as a cultural history of the field informed by critical race theory.

Doctoral Candidate, Art History, Rice University  -  American Art Histories: Framing Race after the Civil War

Sydney Skelton Simon
Sydney Skelton Simon  |  Abstract
This dissertation investigates the confluence of art, design, science, and corporate interests in the career and oeuvre of Harry Bertoia (1915-1978). Although modernist artists had long labored to distinguish themselves from design and the associated threat of their art being dismissed as merely commercial, decorative, or craft, the decades following World War II saw the amplification of this modernist anxiety. A widespread culture of design emerged in the period, in which design assumed unprecedented prominence as a means of relating to the built environment and of interacting with abstract systems and institutions. Bertoia’s work across media, including graphics, jewelry, furniture, painting, sculpture, and sound performance, blurred strict modernist distinctions between fine and applied arts, testifying to design’s new cultural pervasiveness. His work exemplifies the porosity between art and industry, offering new ways of understanding the role of creativity in the highly rationalized cultural climate of the Cold War-era United States.

Doctoral Candidate, Art and Art History, Stanford University  -  Harry Bertoia and Postwar American Design Culture

Joss Kiely
Joss Kiely  |  Abstract
Located at the intersection of the constant motion of modern life and the stability inherent in buildings, this dissertation focuses on Detroit-based architect Minoru Yamasaki’s contributions to late modern architecture as a result of the widespread demands of foreign commerce, diplomacy, and international travel in the newly globalized condition of modernity. It examines the boundary between form and structure in projects ranging from the US consulate in Kobe, built in 1955, and the 1961 Dhahran Civil Air Terminal to the 1970-1 World Trade Center as a means to explore the changing role of architecture in response to the mandates of air travel through political and technological lenses. In a time of increased migration of people and goods across the globe, the project considers Yamasaki’s diverse set of projects as part of a growing “infrastructure of itinerancy” that expanded the United States’ modernist ideology and economic imperialism through architectural form.

Doctoral Candidate, Architecture, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor  -  The Infrastructure of Itinerancy: Aviation, American Economic Imperialism, and the Late Modern Architecture of Minoru Yamasaki, 1951-1986

Juliet S. Sperling
Juliet S. Sperling  |  Abstract
Moving images were an unavoidable force in nineteenth-century American visual culture. Layered flap books, spinning volvelles, and hidden-paneled prints, which animated at the touch of a hand, circulated among emerging mass audiences. These metamorphic images sought to capture motion, time, and volume within a flat, static surface’s limits—aims shared by period painting. Tracing moments of intersection between the two genres reveals that by cinema’s emergence around 1895, viewers were attuned to movement’s nuances, and well-practiced in mentally and physically bridging the moving and the still image. An analysis of works by Raphaelle Peale, David Claypoole Johston, and Winslow Homer reveals the insufficiencies of long-held narratives of modernism and flatness, surface and subject, in understanding the dynamic exchange between painting and visual culture in the nineteenth-century United States.

Doctoral Candidate, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania  -  Animating Flatness: Seeing Moving Images in American Painting and Mass Visual Culture, 1800-1895

Ashley Lazevnick
Ashley Lazevnick  |  Abstract
This dissertation reconsiders American precisionism by taking the movement at its word. At the same time that the phrase precision-made first came into use, painters began making pictures of factories, skyscrapers, and machine parts. It has long been argued that such artists were trying to mimic factory production and celebrate urbanization, but this is only one possible understanding of the term precision. This project develops an alternative definition by examining poetic theory, pragmatist philosophy, and popular science alongside a historical reconstruction of precisionist exhibitions in the 1920s and 1930s in order to offer a richer, more complex narrative of precisionist art.

Ellen Holtzman Fellow
Doctoral Candidate, Art and Archaeology, Princeton University  -  Precisionism in the Long 1920s

Gillian Turner Young
Gillian Turner Young  |  Abstract
Throughout the 1970s, the American artist Joan Jonas brought the experimental sphere of theater into dialogue with electronic media: staging mediation and mediating the stage. Based on material from Jonas’s own archive, this dissertation examines how the convergence of theatrical presentation and video technology in her early work illuminates her crucial role in the parallel emergence of performance art. While performance and video art have since bifurcated into two distinct histories, Jonas, who has always belonged to both categories, is uniquely positioned to reveal their co-constitutive formation as well as the overlooked place of theater in this entwined genealogy. Theatrical techniques allowed Jonas to frame the increasingly mediatized conditions of everyday life; moreover, they enabled her to experiment with the instabilities and transformative potential of electronic imagery vis-à-vis contingencies of gender identity and representation that would become central artistic concerns by the close of the decade.

Doctoral Candidate, Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University  -  Electric Theater: Joan Jonas and the Emergence of Performance Art in the 1970s

Ellen Macfarlane
Ellen Macfarlane  |  Abstract
During the early 1930s, US photographers deliberated photography’s role in illuminating and ameliorating the social crises of the Great Depression. Many photographers on the West Coast remained intent on promoting the medium as a creative art. Others, more concerned about California’s violent labor disputes, believed that photography should have a directly political objective. Intervening in these public contests in complex ways, from 1932-35 the Bay Area photography collective Group f.64 exhibited “straight,” unmanipulated photographs of inanimate objects, portraits of colleagues, and images depicting African American sitters, shot close-up, cropped, and with glossy surfaces. Through a close study of the collective’s images and actions, current events, and contemporary photography movements, this dissertation shows how the group’s investments in the object world and the visual operations of straight photography revise conceptions of politically engaged artistic practice, race, and social relations in the Depression-era United States.

Doctoral Candidate, Art and Archaeology, Princeton University  -  Group f.64 Photography and the Object World