My current research involves two interrelated goals – 1) to revise my dissertation, “Mary E. Hutchinson: The Absence of an Oeuvre,” for publication; and 2) to fully develop my “work in progress” digital archiving site, The Artworks of Mary E. Hutchinson, into a permanent dynamic and sustainable digital archive and research tool. To be clear, while the subject matter of my project focuses on an artist and her work, this is not an art history project, but rather an interdisciplinary history concerned with visual/material culture and intersections of gender, sexuality, and race in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.
1) Revise dissertation, “Mary E. Hutchinson: The Absence of an Oeuvre,” for publication
Several years ago I encountered, by chance, the material traces of the life and work of an unknown twentieth-century American artist, Mary E. Hutchinson (1906-1970). In addition to paintings and other artworks, I found hundreds of personal letters, news clippings, exhibition documents, and professionally made portfolio photographs of her work. Hutchinson produced more than 250 works of art and achieved critical recognition in the New York art world during the mid-twentieth century. Like many of her contemporaries (both men and women), the “triumph” of abstract expressionism eclipsed Hutchinson’s career. However, unlike many others, such as Isabel Bishop, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, and even Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work also faded from view during the mid-twentieth century, Hutchinson has remained unknown. At first, I thought my project as a historian would be one of recovery, and that I would be able to make sense of this lost woman artist through the available frameworks of women’s history and art history. However, I quickly found that the historian’s familiar categories of New Woman, Feminist Waves, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, as well as the art historian’s interpretive frames of the American Scene, Social Realism, Modern Art, and even Feminist Art failed to offer a coherent story that made sense of this artist’s life and work. The very narratives of history we use to make sense of the past stymied my recovery project. The deeper I followed Hutchinson’s trail through archival documents and historic news accounts, the further I got from conventional narratives of twentieth-century American art and women’s history. As I identified, documented, and located painting after painting, the driving question of my research shifted from recovery to making sense of this artist’s persistent absence from history.
My pursuit of Mary E. Hutchinson’s absence of an oeuvre draws upon two well established approaches to women’s history – recovery and deconstruction. Unfortunately, these two approaches have most often been considered in opposition to one another. Scholars who favor poststructuralist deconstruction have frequently derided recovery as the “add and stir” method of art history and women’s history. Over the past twenty years or more, critical deconstruction has dominated and produced significant scholarship which has challenged oppressive discourses and practices. However, I contend that a side effect of the dominance of poststructuralism and the derision of more empirical historical recovery has been the canonization of those women artists who were effectively reclaimed during the era of feminist recovery which began around 1970. The lives and works of women like Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Krasner, and Eva Hesse resonate in the present because they fit with the available narratives of history and art history. The new canonization of women artists has led even sophisticated scholars such as Anne M. Wagner to claim that these three women “outline a social history of the twentieth-century female artist (when she is white, that is), without burdening it with the dull weight of apparently random generalizations.” Rather than generalizations, the detailed material traces of Mary E. Hutchinson’s life and work challenge this now accepted narrative of social history as not only racially biased, but also narrowly constructed around normative concepts of gender and sexuality.
Through a genealogical approach informed by feminist and queer theories, this dissertation excavates the gap between the material traces of Hutchinson’s life and the invisibility of her body of work today. That gap emerges, retrospectively, as the space that separates Hutchinson’s lived experience from the dominant narratives through which twentieth-century US histories are written. This project’s interdisciplinary exploration of that space reveals it to be – not a void – but the site of a complex play between intelligibility and unintelligibility. Thus, this scholarship not only draws attention to an unknown artist’s life and work, but also reshapes our understanding of art as a dense cultural node shaped by gender, sexuality, race, and class in the twentieth century.
Dissertation Organization and Summary
This dissertation consists of four chapters. Chapters One and Two trace Mary E. Hutchinson’s lived experience through the archives of her personal papers and historical newspapers. Framed as heterography, or the genealogy of a life, Hutchinson’s initial success as a professional artist challenges conventional narratives of twentieth-century art history, including our understanding of US art and politics associated with the “Great Depression.” Read through Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the independent woman artist, Hutchinson’s life and work before 1939 resist the totalization of categories such as “woman artist” and “New Deal art.” Her initial success in paintings such as Nude (c.1934) also reveals overlapping contradictory epistemologies operating around gender and sexuality in concepts of art and artist. After 1939, the public exhibition forums available to Hutchinson dwindled to those organized by women artists, and these became increasingly ignored by the news media and art critics. By the time of her death in 1970, the public no longer recognized Hutchinson as an artist.
Chapter Three, “Queering Kitsch,” traces the discursive transformation of art and artist from subjects of political relations to psychological ones in mid-twentieth art criticism. This shifting discourse transformed the “woman artist” into a paradox defined by gendered concepts of genius and neurosis. I show how Mary E. Hutchinson and her circle of women artists attempted to negotiate the collapsing limits of art by queering kitsch. However, their efforts failed to resonate into the future of “liberated” modern gay identities in the way that camp survived. Chapter Four, “Unintelligible Recovery,” directly engages the core argument of this dissertation that Hutchinson’s artistic production cannot be credibly recovered through available frameworks of history.
In the Conclusion, I trace a single event in Hutchinson’s life as it loops through epistemological transformations over time, and then perform a close reading of her death certificate. Unlike recovery and recuperation, this artist’s anecdote and Hutchinson’s certified death show that the difference between intelligibility and unintelligibility is found not only in events, but also in the epistemologies through which the events are understood. A standard archival document and a seemingly trivial event represent a microcosmic view of Mary E. Hutchinson’s absence of an oeuvre.
To revise the dissertation for publication, I plan to elaborate and expand the text in four areas. I propose to add a chapter providing an in depth context for Hutchinson’s artistic production from 1936-1940 by looking at her association with the American Artists Congress. In doing so, I will give the reader a different perspective on historical events which offers an alternative to avant-garde ideology, and emphasizes the politics of race rather than the politics of communism. This chapter will provide significant insight into Hutchinson’s choices after she returned to Atlanta in 1945, and ties into my second additional chapter which will focus on her engagement with race in Atlanta from 1945-1950 as well as her break with the official arts establishment centered on the High Museum of Art.
To enhance my argument around Hutchinson’s unintelligible recovery through the available frameworks of history, I will add a chapter on the historiography of the recovery of selected contemporaries. Preliminarily, I am considering: Paul Cadmus and Isabel Bishop who participated in the Midtown Galleries with Hutchinson; Alice Neel; Romaine Brooks; Augusta Savage; and Lamar Dodd. Finally, I plan to expand and elaborate on Hutchinson’s unintelligible recovery through the interpretation by the New York State Museum of her representations of Theodore Upshure as associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and the recent marketing on eBay of a student drawing categorized as “of gay male interest.” In addition, I will critique her potential recovery as a “feminist artist” or a “lesbian artist.”
2) Develop digital archiving site, The Artworks of Mary E. Hutchinson, into a permanent dynamic and sustainable digital archive and research tool
The Artworks of Mary E. Hutchinson is a digital archiving “work in progress” which uses the omeka platform. I initially planned and developed the site as an Emory Woodruff Library Graduate fellow working with the newly formed Digital Information Scholarship Commons (DISC). The site brings scholarly attention to the life and work of Mary E. Hutchinson and makes her artwork accessible for the first time. The site documents her work and will also offer contexts and interpretations through the exhibit features of omeka.
I launched the site publicly November 30, 2011. As indicated by the Google Analytics image below, in the past year 137 individuals have visited the site and an extraordinary 45 percent of site traffic has been from returning visitors indicating sustained interest and dynamic potential. Another notable trend indicated by the site analytics reflects increasing awareness of Hutchinson and her work. Since the publication of my article in Feminist Studies, “Mary E. Hutchinson, Intelligibility, and the Historical Limits of Agency,” which was distributed in October 2012, search traffic on the site has increased substantially. Prior to this publication, very few people knew Hutchinson existed and most traffic came from referrals from my blog jaeturner.com which I launched at the same time.
Working in tandem, my blog and the digital archive, have also netted exciting search traffic from individuals who own Hutchinson’s work and wanted information on the artist. Through my blog I have located approximately forty works of art over the past year which would remain inaccessible if not for digital scholarship.
The development of The Artworks of Mary E. Hutchinson into a sustainable and effective digital archive and research tool will require two types of work. One is the continued scholarly development of the site content and blogging about it. The other is the migration of the site from the template based omeka.net platform to the more flexible and dynamic omeka.org platform.
 Anne M. Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 10.