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A Private Eye for Art

USC College graduate student is awarded the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art for his work examining the public and private works of three postwar American artists.

By Allison Doyle MPW '11
June 11, 2010

USC College's Jason Goldman, a Ph.D. student of art history, earns a Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship to help him complete his unique dissertation on the private works of postwar American artists. Photo credit Allison Doyle.

USC College's Jason Goldman, a Ph.D. student of art history, earns a Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship to help him complete his unique dissertation on the private works of postwar American artists. Photo credit Allison Doyle.

Norman Rockwell pieces, these aren't.

But that's why they intrigue Jason Goldman, a USC College Ph.D. student of art history. Goldman is rarely interested in what he refers to as the "masterpieces." His tastes tend toward beat generation artist Jay DeFeo, earthworks artist Robert Smithson and former Warhol superstar turned artist Brigid Berlin.

“I’m drawn to marginal or little-known objects that have an oblique or troubled relationship to established ideas about art history,” said Goldman, who expects to earn his doctorate in May 2011. “I’m interested in what they can tell us about how art history is written, its elisions, gaps and blind spots.”

Goldman is on to something. In April, he was awarded a 2010-11 fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to help him complete his unique dissertation, “Open Secrets: Publicity, Privacy, and Histories of American Art, 1958-69.” The Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art is worth $25,000. Goldman was among 10 recipients of the annual award — one of the nation’s few funding Ph.D. candidates in American art.

“This is major because there are no strings attached,” Goldman said. “It’s really meant to allow dissertation writers to have the time and space to devote themselves fully to working on their projects.”

Focusing on artwork by American artists DeFeo, Smithson and Berlin, Goldman’s project analyzes the ways in which publicity and privacy structured the history of postwar American art.

“The ‘public and private’ framework of my dissertation evolved organically out of the materials I was looking at,” Goldman said. “The objects themselves are surprising.”

For example, one chapter deals with Smithson’s private, large-scale erotic collages he created in the mid-’60s. These pieces were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime and were only revealed in the ’90s when his estate published a select portion.

“Smithson is undoubtedly a very canonical artist. His work is widely collected by museums and he has a lauded place in the history of postwar American art,” Goldman said. “But the objects I’m looking at are very different than what he’s typically known for.”

By studying the artists’ private works, Goldman is examining the constraints placed upon postwar American artists concerned about their public reputations and why they were driven to create private pieces. He is also studying the potential consequences of belatedly appending these “fugitive materials” to the artists’ existing bodies of work.

This is Goldman’s third and final fellowship for his Ph.D. dissertation. In 2008-09, he completed a year-long residential fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., where he conducted research in its Archives of American Art. Shortly after his return, he was awarded the USC Anna Bing Arnold Fellowship. Eventually, Goldman hopes to teach art history at the college level. His project, he says, has informed his overall view of art history.

“In a way, you could say that all art history happens at the threshold between public and private,” Goldman says, explaining the versatility of this topic. “It’s a matter of what is admitted to the archive or preserved in the historical record versus what’s lost, discarded or suppressed.”

Goldman is thrilled about the fellowship.

“If you’re being funded to do your own research, it’s a gift,” Goldman said. “It really makes a huge difference.”