Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2018
Abstract Bodies and Otherwise: A Conversation with Amelia Jones and David Getsy on Gender and Sexuality in the Writing of Art History

On the heels of the recent publication of their books Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories and Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender, Amelia Jones and David Getsy initiated a conversation about these books and the current state of and future directions for art history’s engagements with gender and sexuality.[i] The following dialogue was conducted by email over the course of the summer and fall of 2017, and it is presented by as part of its commitment to engage with new ideas in art-historical and art-critical writing.

Amelia Jones: Perhaps we could start with asking ourselves: What are the different versions of “gender” as a concept and experience being deployed in art-historical and art-critical writing today?

David Getsy: Our present moment is indebted to a sustained attention to gender—first and foremost from feminist criticism beginning in the 1970s and extending through allied perspectives in queer theory and transgender studies. These ways of understanding the politics of how one writes art history are still urgent. It’s a mistake to think we’re past the need for the feminist critique of structural sexism, for queer theory’s resistance to the propagation of heteronormativity, or for the defense of gender self-determination put forth by transgender studies. Indeed, there are ongoing and complex debates about how to understand gender’s relation to societal power among these perspectives—and, most crucially, of the ways in which all gender normativities are tied up with race. Those debates can (and should) challenge the aversion to talking about inequalities of gender and sexuality that is still evident in some writing about art’s histories and current practices.

AJ: I would add an extension based on my own experience in the field. I have spent almost thirty years (!) pursuing a feminist art history and have been continually marginalized from certain powerful institutions (departments, journals, conferences, etc.) for putting gender—or, crucially (as you point out), structures of power relating to gender/sex identification—in the foreground of my analysis, as well as strategically and extensively focusing on the work of otherwise neglected woman-identified and queer artists.

Watching moments at which such emphases are momentarily fashionable emerge and then quickly pass by (say, the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, or the brief heyday of feminist shows in the US and Europe around 2005–10), I am struck by the continued failure to integrate an understanding of how gender/sex identifications function in art-historical scholarship, as well as in curating. Gender/sex plays a role either relating to self-identification or, often unspoken and hidden, identifications positioning artists’ works in a hierarchy of value based on their presumed gender/sex.

This also relates to the larger problem of assuming questions of identification to be peripheral to the “real” work of art history. I would argue, in contrast, that there is no point in doing art history without starting from the point of awareness that all making and interpretation takes place in ways that are deeply and inevitably informed by beliefs about the perceived identity of the artist, as well as by our own matrices of identification. Sex/gender identifications are not in this framework peripheral or secondary concerns. Nor are they prioritized as somehow more important or more foundational than other modes of identification such as class or race/ethnicity (these are all co-constitutive). And no art making, viewing, interpretation, historicization, collecting, marketing, or exhibition of art occurs outside these matrices of power. This is the overarching point in my book Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts.[ii] Art is all about gender/sexuality—there is nothing about it that escapes such identifications!

DG: But this is what is encouraging about all of the work that is emerging out of feminist, queer, and transgender thought today. That’s the more hopeful answer to your question about what’s happening in current writing about art. Those perspectives that take gender as a critical site at which to expose larger structures of oppression have developed an increasingly sophisticated accounting of the operations of structural heteronormativity, sexism, and transphobia. As well, the understanding of gender’s intertwining with race, sexuality, and class is a central priority today, and the terminology and methods for intersectional critique are expanding.[iii]

AJ: I think your insistence in your recent book, Abstract Bodies, on addressing the work of David Smith, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain through the lens of gender/sexuality (itself a kind of willfully perverse critical gesture) is one of its most interesting methodological contributions. Those are compelling chapters. Finding the evidence of views and beliefs about sexuality in discursive traces (statements, interviews, archival bits) is such a powerful strategy, and one that parallels what I am doing in my current book project (tentatively entitled In Between Subjects: A Critical Genealogy of Queer Performance). Here, I’m looking at the historically coextensive rise of discourses around “queer” cultures and subjects and “performativity” and performance in the art world; I explore the co-elaboration of gay or queer culture, theatricality, relationality, performance, and performativity in the 1950s and following.

DG: What became clear to me in writing my book was how much these canonical artists were always already talking about instabilities of gender and sexuality. The texts that they produced about their work—through interviews and writing—returned again and again to questions about gender assignment and abstraction (Smith), sex as a metaphor for artistic practice (Chamberlain), the body as a limit (Nancy Grossman), or the visual evidence of sexual differences and the effects of naming (Flavin). That is, the art-theoretical debates about abstraction, anthropomorphism, figuration, and objecthood all grappled with issues of gender’s multiplicity and transformability. Nevertheless, these topics had been ignored or sidelined in dominant art-historical discussions. For me, it became urgent to show that gender’s multiplicity, in particular, had always been at issue. Nonbinary and non-dimorphic definitions of gender greatly clarified the terms of such historical debates.

We have to attend to the silences and omissions in history. All historical debates about gender and sexuality are always also potential registrations of the capacity for non-ascribed and volitional genders and for queer resistances to emerge. I think your work on theatricality’s anxious relation to queer performativity will also help bring out such possibilities for resistance and an understanding of recognizing the importance of gender and sexuality to our received art-historical narratives.

AJ: My aim with the book is to historicize the terms “queer” and “performativity”: they have been elided in performance studies and cultural studies in particular into a concept that few question, but there is a history to their connectedness. This connectedness, this history, allows me to highlight the way in which binary concepts of gender and sexuality haunt the making and theorizing of contemporary art all the way through to the present—certainly quite directly since the 1940s.

DG: This, I think, is the reason we’re having this conversation—to discuss how important it is to recognize that gender and sexuality are not peripheral, subordinate, or distracting issues for art history but, rather, necessary and foundational to that history. As I mentioned above, however, to do this it seems necessary to expand the terms and scope of accounts of gender by arguing for the pertinence (no—the urgency) of recovering histories of gender’s already existing (and historical) multiplicity and mutability. Most accounts of historical (or current) individuals are based on a false axiom that there are only two genders and that the human species is simply, clearly, and consistently divided in two. It’s like saying the world is flat because that’s how it looks outside my window.

I tried to address this by thinking about one possible transgender studies method—one that took as axiomatic a recognition of gender as multiple, bodies as non-dimorphic, and both personhood and embodiment as transformable and successive. How do we start from such an axiom, and how do we find evidence that pursuing it produces more nuanced and complex interpretations — and narratives of potential identification and resistance? I don’t mean “alternative” interpretations. I mean head-on accounts of how gender’s potential and complexity inform artistic practice and its receptions. There is great value in the methodological choice to take as foundational an understanding that genders are volitional and multiple and that bodies are not limited by absolute dimorphism. For instance, there are some readers of my book who got angry that I would do such a thing to an artist like Dan Flavin or David Smith—artists who seemed unconnected to nonbinary genders. But my point was in alliance with yours: that all artists and all art need to be approached with the understanding that gender/sexuality and unforeclosed multiplicities are already inextricable. It’s myopic to assume that it’s only women artists who need (or benefit from) feminist critique, only non-heterosexual artists who require queer critique, or only transgender artists who are the topics of transgender studies. That assumption (an insidious inversion of identity politics) is a way of keeping people in their places and preventing wide-scale, structural critique and re-envisioning. Feminist, queer, and transgender critical approaches must be pursued expansively.

AJ: Beautifully stated, David, and a powerful nutshell summary of your complex arguments in the book. How do these theoretical points square with the need to give more time and space to the work of artists previously and consistently marginalized, though? I know you’ve gotten some flak for focusing on artists who already are fully canonized (Smith, Flavin, Chamberlain), while your chapter on Nancy Grossman fits more awkwardly into this story, since her work is largely not abstract and in fact does explicitly deal with gender and sexuality on a continuum that is quite radically unusual for feminist artists at the time.

DG: The shock of Grossman’s heads as figurative but abstract was necessary to the methodological convictions of the book. Thank you for asking about it. The inclusion of her work in the book troubles the very category of abstraction (as you note) and points to the ways in which the ideas that are distilled by formal abstraction are not limited to abstract art. But, more importantly, it allowed me a different way of tracking the unintended effects of intentionality (a key theme of the book). I discussed how Grossman’s committed engagement with gender’s multiplicity and bodily transformation in her work was caricatured and misrecognized by critics as spectacular queer performativity—that of leather and S&M, which in the 1960s became a topic of popular discussion and anxiety. For me, it felt both appropriate and important to track the development of her work beyond the abstraction of the 1960s through her turn to figuration at the end of the decade. In both, she attempted to evoke the body as transformable and gender as volitional without representing a body. Frankly, I don’t care about a locked-down definition of abstraction as pure, and I was happy to talk about different degrees of abstraction (as in my chapter on Smith) or the more propositional and analogical “abstraction” of Grossman’s sculptures of heads—representational sculptures that refused the body and, in so doing, refused the assumptions about gender that viewers invariably bring to its images.

Again, my main point in the book was to explore the possibilities of starting with the assumption that transgender capacity is pervasive and is already historical. In all four case studies, I attempted to offer a new account of the complexity contained in each artist’s work that was rooted in their artistic practices and their statements about them. The close attention to these ways of making, these statements, and these histories also, however, afforded the opportunity to demonstrate how binary or static assumptions about gender or personhood were inadequate to that complexity. Each chapter sought to provide an example of how transgender capacities can be located—in different ways and degrees—in negotiations of abstraction’s relationships to bodies and persons. I think some people read my book looking for a simple formula, but I deliberately refused such aspirations to a master theory. Instead, I believe transgender capacity is a foundational question that we must bring to all art histories. The directions of the answer to that question will be—like gender multiplicity—specific, particular, and variable.

I want to make sure we don’t just talk about the politics of art-historical writing but also about artistic practice. After all, both our books address the terms through which artists thought about their practices. But with regard to current art, it seems to me that, sometimes, there is an uptake in artists’ practices of debates in gender/sexuality that is faster, more unruly, and more direct than either in the art history or the art criticism that tries to catch up to them. Artists do history, too, and they mine art history for capacitating sites in unruly and productive ways. Are there any artists’ practices that offer methodologies for the history of gender/sexuality? That is, ones that don’t just represent or critically engage with gender/sexuality but that actually offer different ways to think about interpretation, history, or criticism (of their and of others’ work)?

AJ: I agree—the most interesting artists theorize and address history and gender and sexuality in their work; that’s what makes the practice powerful. For example, Carolee Schneemann (in pieces such as Eye Body of 1963 and Fuses of 1967), Yoko Ono (in the epic 1964-65 Cut Piece) and VALIE EXPORT (in her radical performances confronting the male gaze in late 1960s Vienna) pioneered embodied feminist models of critique before the rise of feminist visual theory. Jack Smith’s performative mode of living creatively and queerly pioneered queer performance long before Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick theorized it around 1990. Adrian Piper’s My Calling Card (1986) enacted as it theorized the relationality of identification, which scholars and writers took up in 1990s theories of intersectionality and relational aesthetics. These would be some historic examples. Other obvious examples that come to mind include artists whose work addresses questions of history and theory directly, and in turn inspires researchers looking for ways of understanding how gender/sex identifications resonate in, inform, and are informed by visuality and visual practices (as well as performance). Within feminism, that would be someone like Mary Kelly (whose psychoanalytic, Marxian feminist visual theory is enacted across her writing as well as her artwork), or obviously Piper, who is a philosopher as well as an artist (her 1988 Cornered may not explicitly address sexuality and gender, but folds these elements into our inevitably racialized encounter with Piper in the work), or Tee Corinne (who used photography to create images evoking and celebrating lesbian eroticism, which could be said to theorize visually a way of imagining nonbinary modes of sexual embodiment). These artists are all extremely learned and think as well as make in theoretically rigorous ways that in turn can inform how we understand (and historicize) gender/sex relations and meanings.

I have also developed my own thoughts about gender/sex theory and visuality/performance through the life works of Vaginal Davis and Ron Athey, who enact in their work a lived intersectional performativity that, as you say, pushes boundaries through the playing out of unruly desires and erotic actions, and those of Sandy Stone (whose performative lectures in the 1990s and early 2000s enacted as they theorized gender fluidity). William Pope.L’s maverick performances, Renate Lorenz and Pauline Boudry’s work as well as the performances of Cassils, Zackary Drucker, Nao Bustamante, Keijaun Thomas, and Rafa Esparza—all theorize as they enact the interrelations among visuality, embodiment, and gender/sexuality. I could go on, but these are some of the practices that have informed my thinking the most.

DG: That’s a great list. I think it’s very important to be attuned to artists who model or produce methodologies through their work. That is, works that impact how we view other artworks and the world. Here, I’m thinking of artists like Adam Pendleton, Gordon Hall, Xandra Ibarra, Carlos Motta, Andrea Geyer, Henrik Olesen, Shahryar Nashat, or My Barbarian—just to give a sense of the range of different practices.

AJ: Yes—I’m including Ibarra in my book on queer performativity (probably to disrupt the chapter called “Trans,” where I address the radical new forms of queer practice and being that have come to the fore in recent years). Our examples have been from artists who have more or less directly sought to produce such oppositional perspectives, but what are strategies for differentiating gender/sexuality theory from our assumptions or beliefs about how artists themselves are identified? 

DG: Perhaps another way to phrase this is: What is the distinction between, on the one hand, the artist’s self-identified gender or sexuality and the ways in which gender or sexuality are prompted by their work? Or, how do we correlate intention and reception without reducing the artwork to the artist’s identity? The history of queer culture has been built on productive and speculative ways of carving out queer potentialities from a culture that refuses to acknowledge difference equanimously. Sometimes the only avenues of survival are to imagine communities and to find in unlikely places evidence that one is not alone. Historically, such ways of reading against the grain and beyond intentionality have proven emotionally and politically edifying. How can we value those rogue readings, queer interventions, trans capacities, and all those other means of finding cracks in the attempts to police difference and to enforce normativity? If we insist that cultural production is ultimately delimited by the identity of its creator, do we lose this practice of critical appropriation and of making counterculture? How can we grapple with the issues of structural oppression and privilege that validate certain kinds of cultural production without foreclosing the possibility that subversive or reparative uses of that same cultural production can be resources for the survival and flourishing of those marked as different?[iv]

AJ: Great questions, David—although I’ve always avoided the concept of “intentionality,” because (through the theorizing of Jacques Derrida and others) I believe it is an impossible conceit that can, in conservative forms of art history, veil projections of meaning onto works of art (i.e., the interpreter presuming to “know” the galvanizing intention of the artist, when in fact we never have access even to our own “intentions” in any full or simple sense). I’d only add to this (from the arguments in my book Seeing Differently) that the key point is often to insist on complicating the discussions around identity, art, and art’s institutions and discourses.

The tendency is to oversimplify the question into “we should or shouldn’t reduce the work to the identity of the artist”—and I think the answer to this simplistic question is “of course we should not.” Art is not reducible to some concept of identity (whatever that even means). So this question of whether or not we should connect the work directly to “identity” is completely not the point, in my opinion, not least in that it glosses over what we mean by identity and how we determine it. The point, rather, is that when we think about, make, or look at something we call art we are necessarily connecting it to a making subject, who is inevitably (if not fully consciously) “identified” in our minds. We interpret a work differently, for example, depending on whether we imagine the maker to be a white man versus a Chicana—or David Smith versus Nancy Grossman, to take your examples—and of course our own experiences and biases figure into how this distinction plays out in our relational engagement with the work.

This is, of course, a variation on the understanding in sociology since Erving Goffman in the late 1950s, and the attribution theory of social psychologists such as Edward E. Jones in the 1960s, that all meaning is relational—we engage people in a related way, although of course in the case of human interactions there is more volatility.[v] (This is where live performance can have a particular place in discussions about how we connect art to beliefs about the maker’s identity.)

DG: We have to acknowledge and understand the positionality of the artist (and, as well, of patrons, curators, etc.). But I also think that we must attend to the unintentional effects of intentionality and see artworks as embodying logics that were not planned but nevertheless operative in a work’s reception.

AJ: Yes. That’s a powerful way to nuance intentionality.

DG: Here’s an example (that may date me): the other day (thanks to Pandora radio), I randomly heard for the first time Freddie Mercury’s version of “The Great Pretender.” That version operates queerly and means differently than when that song was first sung by The Platters. A listener’s knowledge of the open secret of Mercury’s queer tactics in his music informs how that song can be interpreted and identified with. (This open secret, I learned upon some investigation, was reinforced by the 1987 video for Mercury’s version, which cycled through his looks from his Queen years and included members of the band in drag.) That is, one does the calculus of difference to ask who the proposed “you” is in its lyrics and what “pretending” means to someone who pushed the boundaries of heteronormativity’s demand that queers camouflage themselves into the supposed “normal.” This is what shifts from the R&B version sung by Tony Williams (lead singer of The Platters) to Mercury’s adoption of the song three decades later. But what’s most important about this is that—in between Williams’s and Mercury’s versions—one can come to see how a shift in context can, in this case, reveal a queer capacity in the song. (We also need to ask what is assumed and what is lost when the performer adopts this song made popular by black artists—a song that was, in turn, written by The Platters’ white, straight manager.) Paying attention to identity in this case means understanding that the writing of the song (i.e., the initial artist’s plan for it) did not necessarily intend a queer capacity, but one was nevertheless located in it by a different artist (with a different set of intentions).

A simplistic notion that all artworks are entirely dependent on (and equivalent to) the positionality of their makers is an ad hominem fallacy. However, none of this means we ignore identity. Rather, it means we understand how different identity positions inform not just intention but also reception. My (perhaps odd) example of Freddie Mercury’s re-performance of The Platters’ song is meant to highlight that any piece of cultural production must be informed by the identity and context of its maker but it is not limited by them. Indeed, an account of structural sexism, homophobia, or transphobia must, by necessity, map outward from cultural production to the network of reception in which different identity positions compete in and through that cultural production.

Rogue identifications and interpretations can be transformative. There are queer logics in texts and art objects that enable (and encourage) their misuse, their camp adoration, or their unintended embrace. Queer and transgender methods are ways to combat the reality of historical erasure and caricature, since they allow us to find capacitating sites in places beyond those with which we might more easily identify (or be told with which to identify). “Capacity” is my term for thinking about the ways in which transgender or queer potential can be located in texts and artworks (above and beyond the positionality of their authors and makers). This is derived from queer methods of reading against the grain, and it helped me to envision what one (among many) transgender studies methodology might look like with its more complex accounting of nonbinarism’s evidence in history.

AJ: We definitely have shared goals and ultimately mostly compatible frameworks, but I would eschew such dependence on the idea of an artist’s “intentions,” the concept of potential located “in” objects or texts—and this concept of “identity” that relates to both: I have argued (again, in Seeing Differently) that identification is a much more useful term. Identifications are always fluid and changing, particularly in relation to situations and others engaged; identity tends to imply a kind of determined set of characteristics that “stick” with a particular individual, that can be determined (your understanding of gender fluidity clearly would make this impossible in terms of gender/sex identifications). As for intention, I don’t find it useful to imagine (for example) that there was a moment at which the initial author of the lyrics of “The Great Pretender” had a fixed idea that was then transferred in an unmediated way to the words of the song. My creative expression certainly doesn’t work that way (I have no idea what my “intentions” are in a fully determinable way, although I try to articulate certain directions or goals). Words are just as complex in their meaning as are multimedia performances.

DG: I understand that qualification (and would agree there is no “unmediated” transfer of intent to artwork), but I also want to hold on to the idea that artists do, in fact, often plan their works in order to produce certain effects or recognitions by viewers or listeners. Such plans (intentions) are never wholly realized in the recalcitrant materiality of the artwork or the connotative excess of the text. Nevertheless, repeated formations or statements (in a series of artworks, a series of statements about those works, or within the layered process of making an individual artwork) do provide for a methodologically grounded way of locating and analyzing the intentionality—with the understanding that it is only one contributing factor to the artwork or text. The tracking of patterns allows for a way of discussing both the question of planned effects and the accounting of the ways in which they are always exceeded (or productive of new directions). In order to overcome historical erasure, a queer or transgender history of art must look to patterns of replication to help locate sites at which resistance or capacity can be cultivated—in both intentions for and receptions of works of art. This means having an account that is attuned to repeated patterns as a means of attending to intent but also giving weight to cultures of rogue reception (for instance, camp).

Right now, my two big projects are about recoveries of queer and genderqueer performance practices in the 1970s that were very visible at the time but have been written out of history—a book about Scott Burton’s queer performances and infiltrations in high-profile 1970s art institutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, a retrospective of Stephen Varble’s outrageous genderqueer guerilla actions in SoHo galleries and city streets.[vi] For both, I needed a way of talking about intent and about the ways in which these artists cultivated queer or genderqueer logics based in rogue interpretations of others’ works. Understanding the complexities of intent (and its excess) is crucial to historical work and to making a case for the importance of such queer practices to current conversations.

AJ: I’m glad you brought up this deep level of how we understand the relationship between the subject making or interpreting and the meaning of the work—in terms of sexuality. These are not arcane questions, or marginal to the politics and histories we are concerned with. They are absolutely central questions to debate.

But these are methodological and terminological nuances. We both clearly agree that gender and sexuality, however these might be theorized, understood, or experienced, are structurally implicated in any art making or interpretive/contextualizing gestures. In the end, we come to complementary endpoints with our different modes of articulating and theorizing how best to address these structures. Your turn to the performative—your new work on Scott Burton and Stephen Varble—is a thrilling new move, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Their interventions were deeply processual and embodied, and I think will allow you fully to explore the elements you sketch above through the playful, hilarious, and radically queer performative reworkings of earlier pop classics by Freddie Mercury. Sometimes pop culture is the most innovative place to go in order to understand how such strategies can function.

DG: Yes, the point is that issues of gender and sexuality are pervasive, and we cannot forget how central they are to cultural production and the ways we write its histories. Recognizing this means attuning our methods to questions of societal power, of intersectionality with race, of erasures in history, and of suppressed capacities. Feminist, queer, and transgender methods work on many levels not just to make visible the power dynamics of privilege and prejudice but also—we have to remember—to inspire and to incite rogue identifications, reparative positions, unforeclosed narratives, and unanticipated modes of resistance.

[i] Amelia Jones and Erin Silver, eds., Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016); and David Getsy, Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

[ii] Amelia Jones, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[iii] One fantastic example of this is the recent issue of the journal of the Association of the Study of the Arts of the Present, ASAP/Journal, that focused on “queer form.” This collection of essays and statements stages a remarkably wide debate about the politics of form from scholars working in art history, American studies, literature, performance studies, critical race studies, and more—as well as artists, who should always be part of these conversations. “Queer Form,” special issue, ed. Kadji Amin, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Roy Pérez, ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (May 2017).

[iv] While there have been many formulations of such a question, perhaps the most widely influential of them both for scholarship and for artistic practice has been José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[v] See, for example, Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin, 1959); and Edward E. Jones and Victor A. Harris, “The Attribution of Attitudes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3, no. 1 (January 1967): 1–24; as well as Jones, “Interpreting Interpersonal Behavior: The Effects of Expectancies,” Science 234 (1986): 41–46. The fact that Edward E. Jones is my father says something interesting about my own “relational” experience and how it conditions my interests.

[vi] Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble will be on view September 29, 2018–January 27, 2019, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York.

Amelia Jones
Robert A. Day Professor in Art and Design and Vice Dean of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California

David J. Getsy
Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago