Research & Writing

My research focuses on interwar American modernism and aesthetics, with a special emphasis on materiality and three-dimensional thingness. In my work, I consistently ask the question: how to objects serve as signs and tokens of social value?

One article, “Clean Cuts : Procter & Gamble’s Depression-Era Soap-Carving Contests” (Winterthur Portfolio, Spring 2008) recounts how the soap-making giant successfully made the case that Ivory soap, a humble bathroom necessity, could also be taken seriously as an art supply.

Another, “Common Goods: American Folk Crafts as Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1932-33” (Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 2002) examines how an exhibition of duck decoys, weather vanes, and cigar store Indians attempted to present an American basis for modernist abstraction.

My first book, Machine Art, 1934 is due out with the University of Chicago Press in early 2012. In it, I examine the Museum of Modern Art’s Machine Art exhibition: a show of airplane propellers, ball bearings, and other machine parts and products. Curated by MoMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and future architect Philip Johnson, Machine Art claimed to reveal timeless, Platonic values in modern, American-made things, during what many considered to be the lowest point of the Great Depression. A chapter from this book appeared appeared as an article in 2008 (“In Form We Trust: Neoplatonism, the Gold Standard, and the Museum of Modern Art’s Machine Art Show,” Art Bulletin, December 2008).

My second book, tentatively titled “Subtraction: American Sculpture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” argues that the idea of “subtraction” emerged as the dominant motif of sculptural practice and criticism in the early twentieth century. Unifying sculptural methods as diverse as direct carving and the Dada readymade subtraction offered a metaphorical alternative to the additions and multiplications of the modern assembly line and its marketplace. A University of Minnesota McKnight Land-Grant Professorship supports this work.