Into the Archives

last edited on Tue. July 18 2023

Deep dives into objects with our inaugural Collections Research Associates

In Winter 2023, the Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry (with the generous support of the Humanities Collegiate Division) launched the Smart Museum of Art’s inaugural Collections Research Associates program. Three undergraduates were selected to conduct in-depth research on select artworks in the permanent collection to vet existing information, conduct original scholarship, and deepen the Museum’s understanding of its holdings. The diversity of topics speaks to the student’s varied interests and specialties and the breadth of the Smart’s collection.

The Associates studied a range of works, from photographs by Graciela Iturbide and Song Yongping, spanning the abstract expressionist painting of Grace Hartigan to a cityscape by Alice Neel. Their research engaged with the minutiae—making arguments for changes in the titles or dates of these objects—to the big picture—were maquettes part of Claire Zeitler’s practice? Where does the lightbox in the Smart’s collection fit in Cindy Sherman’s artistic oeuvre? Guided by Tara Kuruvilla, the Smart’s Collections Research Preceptor, and in consultation with the curatorial team, students assembled extensive object dossiers for future research and wrote labels and alt text to make their findings more widely accessible.

Below, learn more about the process from the researchers themselves.

Natalie Jenkins, third-year student double majoring in Art History and Visual Arts, with a minor in Architectural Studies, on Claire Zeisler’s Untitled (maquette)
When reflecting on the research conducted at the University of Chicago, the mind jumps to scenes of nuclear reactors and genetically modified mice. At least, that’s what I think of. And yet, I contributed to the UChicago research zeitgeist for two whole quarters and never once used a single micropipette or scalpel. There’s a vibrant world of arts research happening in tandem with all the groundbreaking scientific development, and I had the opportunity to contribute as a Collections Research Associate at the Smart Museum of Art. Research on understudied art objects is an often overlooked but critical work happening at research institutions worldwide; rigorous tombstone vetting ensures that artists are accurately credited, object dates are concretized, and their provenances verified. Though I never stepped foot in a lab, my research led me down equally fascinating rabbit holes, investigating everything from estate sale records to punk magazines.

My favorite line of inquiry was with a maquette made by Claire Zeisler (1903–1991), an American fiber artist who made sculptures of braided and knotted threads and fabrics. Maquettes are the preliminary models artists make in preparation for a final sculpture, similar to sketches or mock-ups. Though arguably not as widely appreciated as the final pieces, they can offer valuable insight into an artist’s practice and creative process. In Zeisler’s case, there was just one catch: early on in my research, I found a 1981 interview where the artist explicitly said, “I don’t believe in making maquettes.”

A definitive statement from the artist herself saying she doesn’t believe in crafting models threw a wrench in my research plans. How could this be true if I saw a Claire Zeisler maquette with my own eyes? I had to pivot—now—and the question was less about where the object came from and more about whether it was a study for a larger work in the first place. Looking at internal Smart Museum records, I discovered that the object was gifted from the collection of the late art historian Dennis Adrian. In the exchange record, the piece was characterized as a maquette; hence the Smart Museum labeled it accordingly. I looked into estate photographs and exhibition catalogs from the Dennis Adrian Collection, hoping to find a previous record of this object prior to its donation to the Smart Museum. In addition, I researched Zeisler exhaustively, scouring everything from her exhibition history to mentions in art historical literature. Interestingly, the only other mention of a Zeisler maquette I found was a different piece entitled High Rise, discussed in a blog post from Plymouth State University Art History Professor Sarah Parrish, who similarly challenges its classification, noting, “Though it is a study for the Milwaukee Art Museum’s High Rise (1983–4), this spectacular piece hardly deserves to be called a “maquette.” 

I continued to look into various exhibitions to determine what this ‘maquette’ could potentially be a study for and could not find anything identical to the piece. Perhaps it was experimentation with a new technique, an object for the artist’s collection, or a gift for a friend. I might never know, but my research journey was undoubtedly worthwhile. Though I didn’t answer whether the piece was indeed a study, I could still contextualize the object in Zeisler’s practice and offer my contribution to research at UChicago by being a Collections Research Associate at the Smart Museum. 

Claudia Klinck, a fourth-year student double majoring in Global Studies and Media Arts and Design, on Zhang Huan’s Xiao Hu
The seeds of my interest in art history were first planted when I visited the Smart Museum of Art’s 2020 exhibition The Allure of Matter. This ambitious exhibition assembled works by contemporary artists who operated across varying media to craft poignant deconstructions of materiality, all centered around practices in China. I recall roaming the Smart’s display, enthralled by the artists’ transformation of traditional and unconventional materials alike into novel works. I was especially interested in this kind of art that aims to transcend conventions of representation; this marked a departure from the notion I had previously held that artistic skill equated to a talent for the photorealistic rendering of images. The works composing The Allure of Matter aimed at something quite different: to reflect on what the materiality of an object reveals beyond its literal and figurative surface.

This year, as a Collections Research Associate, I have enthusiastically seized upon the opportunity to explore my personal interests within an academic and professional context. I spent six years of my childhood living in China and have long been interested in the history of Chinese art, as rich and nuanced as that of the nation’s ubiquitous political and social upheaval. Over the past two quarters, I have been researching an object in our collection by Zhang Huan (b. 1965), one of the most prominent artists and activists working in China today. Xiao Hu is an example of Zhang’s work in a medium he began exploring only in the last decade of his 30+ year career. Zhang creates “ash paintings” in his Shanghai studio by adhering incense ash onto stretched canvases and linens. 

To view Xiao Hu in person is to witness a striking topography of masses of ash jutting out from the surface of the painting. Taking a step back from it is reminiscent of observing a work of Seurat-esque pointillism; the clumps of gray and black form a portrait of a young boy so detailed as to appear akin to a grayscale photograph. 

In discussions with my fellow CRAs, our research preceptor, and the Smart curatorial team, I have been stumped by what has often felt like the most basic of questions on the work, namely, what is it about? Our existing archive on Xiao Hu is quite bare. Initially striking is that the official recorded title includes the Romanized pinyin transliteration from Mandarin but no original Chinese characters. Based on my minimal background with the language, I might pair “Xiao Hu” with the phrase 小虎 meaning “little tiger.” Many questions remained unanswered throughout my research: Is “Xiao Hu” the person depicted in the work? Does Zhang Huan personally know the subject of the work? Is the subject of the work even a specific person? 

My failure to answer these questions left me stumped throughout several stages of the research process. To overcome the impasse of the subject of the work, I began to focus on the process of its making. Where else did I turn but the Smart’s digital archive of the 2020 The Allure of Matter exhibit? There I discovered an entire webpage dedicated to Zhang Huan’s practice of ash paintings. I learned of his process of organizing found ash by shades of grays and blacks to lay out for himself a working palette (pictured here).

I felt that I was on the right path with this renewed focus on the materiality of the work, so I continued to dig into his ash painting practice, which I discovered began in 2005, long after Zhang had established a global reputation as a performance artist, primarily working in New York. His transition to the new medium occurred in conjunction with a move back to China. It reflected the locality of his practice through the material itself, as all of the ash he used was found in temples in Shanghai. I learned that Zhang based his ash portraits on found photographs of public figures and strangers memorialized in old family albums. While the individual subjects of these portraits varied, they remained consistent in their means of portrayal, closely cropped and representing a snapshot of the person’s life.

It was incredibly fulfilling to take on this investigative project and to learn as much as possible about the work. My major takeaway was the power of reframing the imbuement of the value of an artwork as occurring not always at the point of its completion but throughout the artist’s engagement with the materials composing it.

Jiahe Wang, a second-year student majoring in Art History and Media Arts and Design, on Alice Neel’s The City
While Alice Neel (1900-1984) was known as a painter of people, she also saw New York City as her muse, creating vivid “portraits” that captured the spirit of the metropolis during the 20th century. In her piece The City, the bright, saturated sky and the dark brownstone buildings split the image diagonally. The white clouds and comic book-like outlines beam against the pastel blue; the cityscape’s earthy palette obscures the lone figure in the corner. The dynamic composition draws the eye to the upper half, rising through the dark mass of buildings and the Manhattan skyline, eventually halting at the yellow sun. 

I did a deep dive into this painting at the Smart Museum of Art as a Collections Research Associate. Provenance research on the lesser-known works of a significant artist is a unique form of detective work. You must navigate an (often overwhelming) sea of information to find the clues leading to your final discovery. During this process, be prepared to encounter many red herrings, dead ends, and disappointments. But also, be ready to learn unexpected things about the piece and the artist you are investigating. My project at the Smart plunged me into the world of the bustle of 20th-century Spanish Harlem and New York’s social circles of intellectuals and artists.

The painting I worked on was featured in a group show alongside twenty other contemporary American works by artists like Kurt Seligmann and Francis Chapin at the University of Chicago-affiliated Renaissance Society in 1946 when it was donated by University Trustees Mr. and Mrs. Earle Ludgin. The painting is regularly featured in permanent collection exhibitions and used for teaching. However, the painting’s object file is intriguingly sparse, with the creation date listed as “probably 1940s.” My main task for this piece was to find a more accurate date for future curatorial use. Additionally, I was to build out the object file, write a website label, and create alt-text for the painting.

Leafing through the object’s physical files at the Smart yielded many leads. First, I examined a list of the works featured in the Renaissance Society’s show in 1946. Some of these contained concrete creation dates, but The City did not. Since the piece came from these donors, investigating the collection of the Ludgins to see if there is an acquisition date seemed like a promising route. I then read all the correspondence between the Smart and individuals connected to the acquisition of The City. I found that Curator Richard A. Born turned to a connoisseurly approach to date the work. From the Museum’s collection database, I discovered that the painting was acquired from Rose Fried Gallery in midtown New York, which had archives available that may contain information on The City

Of course, many of these leads I identified led to dead ends. For example, I wanted to use the information on the Ludgins’ collection to see when they might have connected with Alice Neel: I looked through the University’s photographic archives of trustees, installation views of the Ludgins’ other collections at the Art Institute, obituaries, and miscellaneous letters Earle Ludgin wrote to other artists, only to find nothing related to Alice Neel. Following the breadcrumb trail of the Rose Fried Gallery, I dug through old articles in Life Magazine and ArtNews to contextualize Neel’s solo show. 

This yielded no mention of The City specifically. Still, I did learn several details about Neel’s career, including contemporary critiques of her work despite her stellar reputation nowadays as a painter of American life. A review from 1944 of her show at the former Pinacotheca Gallery described her as prone to “drown[ing] her ideas in a pervasive, thick leaden grey” and her paintings as possessing a “deliberate hideousness.” Another article, “End of WPA Art,” reported that a junk dealer bought many WPA artworks dirt cheap, including Alice Neel’s New York Factory Buildings, which sold for $3 to a bric-a-brac dealer. These serendipitous discoveries along the arduous detective journey make object research so rewarding. You can take a break from hyper-fixating on the research question and go down a rabbit hole of other relevant information while contributing to the object file. 

After harnessing multiple forms of research, including scholarly articles, exhibition texts, and even Google Maps, I believe I could narrow down the range of dates for this piece slightly to before 1946. There are still many threads to follow that I have identified, and I plan to pursue them further to pinpoint an exact date. Along the way, as an art detective, I acquainted myself with the breadth of Neel’s oeuvre, walking away with an intimate portrait of the mid-20th-century painter.