Art History’s three junior faculty members study vastly different regions and time periods. What the three researchers share, according to department chair Niall Atkinson, is “knowing the limitations and potentialities of their subfields”—and then pushing the limitations and mining the potentialities.

Here is a look at some of the questions these assistant professors are asking.

After more than two millennia, are there new ways to look at ancient Greek sculpture?

What we know about ancient Greek culture comes primarily from two sources: the scribal tradition that has preserved Greek literature, and the archaeological discoveries of Greek art. While they are often studied separately, Seth Estrin brings them together so that “we find the Greek language—such a conceptually rich and densely poetic language—animating the objects that survive in ways we could never anticipate if we just applied ways of thinking we have inherited from our own time and place.”

For example, his current book project, “Grief Made Marble: Funerary Sculpture in Classical Athens,” studies not just the sculptural components of funerary monuments but their inscriptions as well, examining how—through both their text and their images—they compelled public viewers to engage with an emotion like grief. A central focus of the book is the Greek concept of “recognition” (anagnorisis), which is normally deployed in the study of Greek tragedy. Here, though, it is rooted in the practice of looking at art of the same period.

Another book project, tentatively titled “Art and Embodiment in Archaic Greece,” explores the shaping of the sense of self through artistic practices in early Greece—including constructs of gender and sexuality and the relationship between emotion and the body.

Estrin, who joined the faculty in 2017, notes that the term “classical” tends to evoke restraint and distance. “When we look at an ancient work of art,” he says, “we often try to be as objective as possible in using our own eyes to see through those of someone in the past. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in ancient Greece, there was no objective way to look at a work of art.”

Like art of any era, Estrin says, ancient Greek works “could look different to different people. But ancient artists were aware of this and worked to cultivate forms of subjective experience that you and I come to share by looking at the same objects—forms that can still be accessed even 2,500 years later.”

What can art history learn from two rather unsuccessful artists?

Tamara Golan is at work on “Unnatural Evidence: The Rise of Expertise and Fate of Artifice in Late Medieval Switzerland.” Based on her dissertation, the book centers on Hans Fries and Niklaus Manuel, two sixteenth-century Swiss artists who became involved in the inquisitional trial of four Dominican friars accused of faking a series of miracles. They testified on, among other topics, whether a substance was paint or miraculous blood.

A widely publicized event—Golan refers to it as “the O. J. Simpson trial of the sixteenth century”—the trial drew the attention of Erasmus, the pope, and Martin Luther, among others.

She uses the trial as a way to rethink the field of art history by examining the definitions of pictorial naturalism and the ability of art to depict the supernatural. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the ambition of Fries and Manuel.

“They’re working in a time and place that is typically viewed as the birthplace of the modern Artist, with a capital A,” says Golan, who arrived at UChicago in 2019. Yet in contrast to works by Dutch and German artists of the period, Fries’s and Manuel’s images were dismissed as medieval, derivative, provincial.

“We should be taking their work as seriously as that of someone like Albrecht Dürer or Jan van Eyck,” she says.

Where the work of Dutch and German artists like van Eyck and Dürer aimed to portray nature as it appeared to the eyes, Fries’s and Manuel’s work was characterized by distorted perspective, unusual modeling, and heavily tooled gold ground. They were, in fact, committed to faithfully reproducing the appearance of not the natural but the supernatural.

Regardless of its merits, Golan says, “this mode they develop is ultimately a failure” in that it fails to reproduce itself and become an enduring pictorial tradition in the mode of the Dutch Masters or other movements. That aspect, however, is also interesting to her.

“So much of my particular subfield is about tracing a genealogy of modernity,” she says. “But how do we account for a style that just fails completely?”

What does modernism mean?

Megan Sullivan’s Radical Form: Modernist Abstraction in South America (Yale University Press, forthcoming) examines four central figures in the history of abstract painting in South America. She hopes the book serves as a “reassessment of the stakes of abstraction”: to see the movement not just as an aesthetic style dominated by European masters but as a global phenomenon and a catalyst for new social imaginaries.

Abstract painting in Latin America has been seen as a symbol of modernization and process employed by elites. But Sullivan, who joined the faculty in 2014, argues that, in its most ambitious form, abstraction reflects deep anxieties about the place of individuals, the grounds of truth and meaning, and possibilities for new kinds of collectivity within the modern world.

Her next book project, focused on the history of Peruvian modernism, continues to explore how modernism relates to modernity outside of the North Atlantic but wanders further from the more Western conception of modernism in Radical Form. It explores how, in Peru, modernist painting developed in a tense but dependent relationship with craft and indigenous traditions of art-making. The central question it asks: How might charting the “others” against which modernism is defined in particular places help us account for an expanded, global notion of modernist practices?

“The artists I look at in the first book were largely refusing to engage with questions of indigenous culture and race,” she says, “and those become the really essential issues in this second book.”

Photo Creds: 
Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum