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Incoming art history professor Juliet Sperling challenges the meaning of ‘American’ art history

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Juliet Sperling walked into a large auditorium as an undergraduate and first learned about art history from images projected on a screen, as if in an IMAX theater. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where no big museums were close by, this movie-like experience was Sperling’s first exposure to art history, where she opened her eyes to art from all over the world. 

After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in art history, Sperling moved on to pursue a master’s and doctorate in art history at the University of Pennsylvania. She went into graduate school knowing that she wanted to teach at the collegiate level while pursuing her research interests of moving and tactile images. 

After receiving her Ph.D. in May 2018, Sperling went to teach American art at Colby College in Maine. Sperling described her time there as transformative in making the shift to post-doctoral work and teaching. 

When asked what brought her to UW, Sperling stated simply, “This is my dream job.” 

Sperling will join the UW’s School of Art + Art History + Design in the fall as a tenure-track assistant professor and the Kollar Endowed Chair in American Art.

Art history has always energized Sperling, but in the pandemic era and in light of hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the world, Sperling’s thoughts on American art history have intensified in the last few months. 

“I think that a deep critical knowledge of American art, of our nation's visual history, is one of the single most powerful tools that you can employ to combat a lot of the discriminatory ideologies that are resurging in the world today,” she said. 

Sperling pointed to the debates on tearing down monuments, as these memorials are centered around American art and this country’s history. 

“It’s so much about the presence of the past in the present,” Sperling said. “I see American art as a place that is the cultural patrimony of all of us.” 

Sperling explained that the term “American art” is a complicated one.

“Sometimes it includes Indigenous art, sometimes it ignores it; who is included and who isn’t included in that terminology changes over time, and that kind of ownership of our objects, on our visual culture, is really fascinating to me,” Sperling said. “I’ve felt more energized than ever before to teach this stuff and make sure that everybody who lives in this nation or everybody who wants to understand its stuff has an opportunity to really grasp that kind of critical history.”

American art as a field is a lot younger than other art histories and wasn’t accepted until the 1960s; it was seen as tacky and vulgar by art historians for the first half of the 20th century. Even so, the newness of the field gives more space for its scholars to explore and redefine. 

Sperling emphasizes inclusion in her teaching of American art and includes a fair amount of Native American art in her survey classes. In American art history, there are separate subfields for African American art and Native American art, and the question of whether they should be separated or incorporated is a hotly debated question. Nonetheless, Sperling believes that there is a need for scholars that specialize in those areas due to the sheer volume of art to be studied.

Sperling’s research and teaching fall into three thematic categories: broad American art and culture from the end of the 15th century to the present, media studies and media theory, and histories of race and representation in North America. These three themes intersect all the time, but she tends to offer classes that dive deeper into one of these categories. 

ART H 220, the “Survey of American Art” class Sperling will teach in the fall, is currently full, and deals heavily with race and representation and highlights artists of color. It is a mini version of a course offered later in the academic year, “Facing America: Race and Representation to 1900.” 

As the UW approaches a mostly online quarter in the fall, Sperling hopes to expand her thinking of how to teach through an online medium. She is in the process of constructing her syllabus from scratch, paying special attention to sources that are accessible and can be better dealt with online. Sperling is looking into the possibility of including images, newspapers, scrapbooks, and artists’ letters, among other primary materials from the Smithonian’s digitized archives of American art in her class.

“Those are things that in a face-to-face classroom we might not want to be on our laptops digging through,” Sperling said. “But it could be the source of really new and exciting and research projects for students — an opportunity to look at types of materials that we wouldn’t normally look at in an art history class.”

Sperling wrote her dissertation on moving images in American art, which is now morphing into a book project. The book focuses on a history of a little-researched category of objects called tactile images — “the ancestors of pop-up books as we know them” — including works on paper that involve kinetic or moving features. She listed lifting flaps to open the anatomy of a pregnant woman, and a dissection on paper, as examples of this type of art. 

The book considers five case studies, each focusing on a piece of paper or a book of tactile or moving images, and expands into fine art. 

“I think a lot about language when I work on this project because so much of what I’m trying to access, in thinking about touch, is the ways that people express themselves that weren’t accessible through language,” she said. “People found other kinds of languages to express those ideas.” 

In the winter, Sperling will be teaching a class on American art before the Civil War, which will focus on archaeologies of plantations, material culture produced by enslaved people, and resonances of text and image that existed in the colonial period. 

Sperling noted that there are different histories of colonial encounters between the east and west coasts, and she is eager to delve more into those histories. 

“One of the things I’m really excited about is re-orienting what my own idea of what ‘early American art’ is,” Sperling said. 

Reach writer Diana Davidson at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @dianavdavidson

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