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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

WAM x University

What does it take to be able to see a painting in your mind’s eye as you listen to a discussion of it? Maybe it helps to hear an animated account of its colors and composition. Maybe it helps to hear about the life of the artist, and their struggles to figure out what kind of art they wanted to make. Can an audio recording help foster an aesthetic appreciation of a challenging work of art?

Last fall, students in my Art History seminar confronted these and many other questions as they embarked on an exciting, if challenging project, to develop a podcast that introduced WAM’s amazing collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings to the public. The students—who were sophomores, juniors, and seniors, mostly Art History majors and minors—were enrolled in a course titled “Art, the Public, and Worcester’s Cultural Institutions.” This course is designed to give students the opportunity to put their Art History skills in the service of public scholarship.  At Clark, we run this course every year, although the specific public project that students are involved with varies from year to year (WAM visitors may recall the exhibition Women at WAM from 2019, which was also the product of this course, when taught by my colleague, Prof. John Garton). For the Fall 2021 semester, the students and I worked with then-Associate Curator of American Art Erin Corrales-Diaz to develop a season of podcast episodes that would introduce the public to WAM’s extraordinarily deep and vibrant collection of mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist paintings.

The Abstract Expressionist (or “AbEx” – as you will hear many of the students call it in their podcast episodes) collection includes important works by artists like Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, and Norman Lewis. Yet many people—my students included—often feel frustrated and even intimidated when looking at these paintings. Most of them are quite large, and they feature dynamic brushwork, layers of paint, vibrant colors—and no recognizable images. How is a viewer supposed to respond? 

Over the course of the semester, students learned about the AbEx movement, its foundational ideas, and its key critics. They spent hours looking at the individual painting they were assigned to work on, thinking about how best to describe it. How do you translate a vibrant visual object into words? It’s not very easy! Then they had the opportunity to do deep research in the archives here at WAM and extensive reading in WAM’s library. They learned about the careers of the artists behind these passionate paintings, about their ambitions, their triumphs, and their inspirations. After weeks of research and reading, the students drafted their scripts, peer reviewed each other’s work, and finally sat down to record the episodes you can hear now.

While at first you may have thought these paintings were nothing more than “beautiful nonsense,” as Jonathan Hoff admits in the first episode of the season, by the conclusion, in Margret Lambert’s words, “the light is revealed.” The listener of the season’s episodes will have a layered, thoughtful, and—yes—joyful experience learning about them. Tune in!

Listen to the WAM x University podcast

Kristina Wilson, Professor of Art History, Clark University

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