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Transgender studies joins forces with art history in new book from Chicagoan
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2016-03-02

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Almost a decade in the making, a book released in late 2015 and written by Chicago resident David Getsy is rooted in his teaching. The book is aimed at a scholarly and museum audience with the hopes that it will change the way professors, students, artists, and curators look at the history of art, the debates about abstraction and figuration, and the role of transgender studies in art history.

The book, Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender, was published by Yale University Press and is available through online sellers and select area bookstores.

The root of the book started as a lecture on one of the artists nine years ago, "but I really started conceiving it as a book and starting new chapters about five years ago," said Getsy, who is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, he has published six other books.

"I teach classes in the history of modern and contemporary art as well as in transgender and queer studies. I had art students who were using their experiences as trans or queer to make a wide range of work, and many had become frustrated with the narrow set of expectations about how trans or queer identity could become legible in artworks.

"Abstract art became a viable option for many who were seeking to make art in different ways about the experience of being trans or of living queerly. It was in those seminars that I realized how important it would be to think deeply about the terms of abstract art's history and to pursue the implications of transgender politics into art's debates about abstraction and the rejection of the representation of the conventional human form. More deeply, I wanted to argue that the history of art and humanity must be revised once the long-standing and varied range of transgender experience was acknowledged. Quite simply, the world and history looks different when one accepts the reality that genders have always been multiple, personhood is successive, and bodies are complex and mutable."

While it is a book about the history of abstract sculpture half a century ago, Abstract Bodies is also written with current artists in mind.

"I wanted to demonstrate how we today can look differently at the established history of art. The point of my book is not that the mid-twentieth-century artists I studied explicitly advocated trans politics, but rather that we can look back at their conflicted struggles with the human form, naming, or personhood and see how much these debates were also about gender and its volition. I tried to propose a vocabulary for current artists to mine the history of art so that they might see their politics reflected in histories with which they might not at first be able to identify. My aim was to demonstrate how narratives of survival and resistance can be found in unlikely places. It was also to encourage artists working with trans and queer politics to feel emboldened to appropriate and to draw on a wide range of earlier art in making their work and in pursuing their politics for today and tomorrow."

Getsy said the book offers a way to re-view the history of art with transgender issues as a central interpretative lens. It does this by showing how transgender studies compels historians to look at everything differently, including abstract works that do not represent the body as well as the work of non-trans artists and narratives where trans topics may not be immediately visible.

"For me, this meant taking on canonical figures in the history of art, such as David Smith, and showing how much a transgender studies perspective allows us to see better the terms of their work and the larger issues at play in the history of the representation of the human form," he said. "I decided early on to use this perspective to draw non-trans artists into the critique that transgender studies poses. As a non-trans scholar of transgender studies, I advocate for the politics and importance of trans studies, but I cannot presume to speak from trans experience. When I write about trans artists, it is with their authorization and collaboration, as with the contemporary performance artist Cassils, who I discuss in the conclusion to the book.

"With them, I can engage in a level of interpersonal exchange about the writing that I could not do in historical work on deceased artists. The book, instead, looks at mid-century non-trans artists in order to show how transgender studies can be a basis from which to reconsider established narratives that had previously had little place for accounts of genders' mutability and multiplicity. I hope to challenge readers who could never imagine how trans politics could relate to such topics as abstraction or to such figures as the non-trans mid-century artists whom the book recasts. I want to demonstrate that there are resources for survival and flourishing in even the most unexpected places. It is in this way that I hoped I could help to further a wider engagement with trans politics in all our narratives of the human, the body, and the social.

"This book is but one contribution to the larger remapping of the humanities, sciences, and social sciences that the rapidly expanding field of transgender studies is undertaking."

Getsy is originally from Chenango Forks, New York. He first moved to Chicago in 1995 for graduate school at Northwestern ( where he received his Ph.D. ), and then moved to London in 1999. He moved back to Chicago in 2005. He lives in the Noble Square neighborhood with his partner.

A gay man writing about trans issue?

Yes, he said without hesitation. "I see the legal and social oppression faced by trans individuals as one of the most important and urgent arenas for activism today," he said. "In the world of art, museums, and scholarship, I can contribute to the conversation about the politics of gender by compelling people to ask different questions about gender's multiplicities and mutabilities across the history of art. There is a lot more work to be done, and there are histories of trans artists to be recovered and written. This book argues that such revisions are not marginal to the canonical history of art but rather are reflected in its central debates."

Getsy also has been active bringing transgender artists and scholars to Chicago to lecture for the past few years, and he has worked to support the field of transgender studies scholarship. He co-edited a special issue for the inaugural year of the academic journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly in 2014.

"I feel strongly that queer politics must face its own conflicted history of the appropriation and erasure of trans history and advocate strongly for the distinct importance of gender self-determination in legal, political, and social arenas," he said. "Queer politics can't just be about sexuality; it also has to be about gender and race since it is along these multiple axes of legal and social struggle that resistance and self-determination must be defended and cultivated."

Getsy also this year published another book, Queer, that features a collection of over 80 global artists' writings on queer practices ( MIT Press 2016 ).

Getsy is launching his queer artists' anthology at the Center on Halsted on April 15, featuring a conversation with Omar Kholeif, contributor and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Plus, Getsy is part of a public conversation about "Outing Queer Fluxus" and the 1970s, scheduled for April 20 at the Block Museum.


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