Date of Award

2022

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History of Art

First Advisor

André Dombrowski

Abstract

Resisting gravity holds an allure. Situating that appeal within the realm of art history, my dissertation charts modern aesthetic efforts to channel and challenge gravitational force—casting suspension as vital to modernism. I contend that new modes of pictorial time—and, in turn, novel possibilities for embodied engagement—emerged once photographic technology accelerated enough to catch airborne bodies and hold them aloft in the space of an image—documenting a potential which was actualized in the Space Age, when humans first experienced sustained weightlessness. Tracing an ungrounded sensibility that emerged between these nodal points, my project offers a thematic account of how gravitational disruption coheres in pictorial composition and perceptual effects. Drawing upon a range of interdisciplinary sources and period voices, my chapters posit the rise of a form of suspended viewership—which does not presume grounded-ness or fixed coordinates, either within artworks or on our part. From Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of figures held in momentary flight to artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Marcel Duchamp enacting an “aerial gesture” that employs and subverts gravity, and from Claude Monet’s “upside down” waterlily paintings to Aaron Siskind’s levitational midcentury imagery, my case studies explore increasingly unbound aesthetic terrain. Once gravity became dislodged in visual representation, I argue, formal axes were opened to more symbolic creative dimensions. With that metaphoric tenor, this dissertation defines a pictorial suspension ripe with potential—and charged with the power to resist seemingly inexorable forces. Materializing a stillness that arose in the face of modern momentum, the objects at its core open space for a “gravitational imagination”—founded in the world but also challenging its limits.

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