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Photo by Sarah Deragon, Portraits to the People

Jordana Moore Saggese is an Associate Professor of American Art at the University of Maryland, College Park and the current Editor-in-Chief of Art Journal, CAA’s publication focused on twentieth- and twenty-first-century art history. Trained as an art historian, Saggese’s work focuses on modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on the expressions and theorizations of blackness. She was previously Associate Professor of Contemporary Art & Theory at California College of the Arts.

Joelle Te Paske, CAA Media and Content Manager, corresponded with her this month to learn about how she came to do the work she does, and her aspirations for the journal and the field beyond.

Joelle Te Paske: Thanks for taking the time for our interview, Jordana. So to begin, where are you from originally? What pathways led you to the work you’re doing now?

Jordana Moore Saggese: I am originally from Nashville, Tennessee. I attended Vanderbilt University, as a first-generation college student, for my undergraduate degree, and fell into an art history major at the very last moment. In fact, the summer before my senior year I suddenly realized that every opportunity I had to take an elective unit during my time at Vanderbilt I had chosen an art history class. The art history classes I took with my mentor Leonard Folgarait were truly inspiring. He encouraged his students (even those like me, who had very little knowledge of art history) to consider the work of artists as a response to the values and ideas of society, which in turn are determined by historical conditions. I can still remember his lecture on Dada, which was really the turning point for me. It was at that moment that I realized art was not something meant only for the elite; art could also be a form of rebellion. Although I had never been inside an art museum before my time as an undergraduate, Dr. Folgarait, and other faculty there, encouraged me and asked me to think deeply about the stakes of representation and introduced me to a range of objects across multiple continents and chronologies. With their encouragement, I decided to declare a major in art history and apply for graduate school my senior year.

This meant that I had to take the two-semester survey course as a senior, which fundamentally shifted the way I think about teaching those courses.

Whose art history are we teaching?

I can still remember my shock, sitting in a huge lecture hall, listening to someone drone on about a mostly white, male, heterosexist art history. I was wholly unprepared to memorize a seemingly endless stream of images. I finished the courses but this was not the art history that I was used to. That experience, of coming in almost backwards to the discipline, highlighted two main issues that still impact my teaching and research today.

First, how can we give students the very best introduction to the discipline—one that reflects the deep inquiry and the collaboration that was so intrinsic to my experience in the upper-division courses?

And second, whose art history are we teaching? That is, to what extent has a colonialist logic pervaded much of modern art history and what can I do—in my teaching and research—to undo that logic? I have been acutely aware of the ways in which art history has tended to exclude diverse perspectives and histories and much of my own work involves complicating those dominant narratives.

Saggese’s first book, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, was published by UC Press in 2014.

JTP: I love these questions as a fundamental starting point—not supplement—to the question of teaching art history. You were previously on the faculty at the California College of the Arts, and are now at University of Maryland, College Park. How has the transition been?

JMS: Teaching at an art school for the first ten years of my career was a wonderful experience in that it gave me direct and constant access to working artists. Thanks to my colleagues I was able to stay current in the field—a challenge for any historian of contemporary art—and my students constantly challenged me to make the history of art come into real time and space. CCA was also a site of experimentation, where students and faculty were willing to challenge one another, to wrestle openly with difficulty, and to fail. I have tried to bring those values to my teaching at Maryland as well. I have found the students and faculty at College Park to be deeply invested in their individual fields of interest but also in the discipline as a whole. There has also been tremendous support for my research practice, which has been a great benefit to making this transition.

JTP: As a Basquiat scholar, what is something you wish more people know about the artist? 

JMS: I wish that more people considered the extent to which Basquiat’s celebrity status has threatened to eclipse his critical significance. My main project has been, and continues to be, writing this artist into the history of American art. I would also add that working on Basquiat presents extreme challenges for a researcher. There is no public archive of his work and approximately 85-90% of the paintings and drawings are in private collections (and I might mention, constantly being sold). This means that in order to see the works, one must shake a lot of hands, charm a lot of people, and knock on lots of doors. Working on Basquiat requires a thick skin, as I am often embroiled in territorial battles or even ignored. I also spend a lot of money traveling to see exhibitions so that I might glimpse the works in person. So, it’s not your typical research project!

JTP: I can only imagine the challenges that presents in pushing research forward—it’s far from a straightforward dive into the archives. What are you working on currently?

JMS: My second book, The Basquiat Reader: A Critical Anthology will be published by the University of California Press in 2020. The Basquiat Reader is a comprehensive sourcebook on Basquiat for both general audiences and advanced readers. Through a combination of interviews with the artist, criticism from the artist’s lifetime and immediately after, previously unpublished research by me, and a selection of the most important critical essays on the artist’s work, The Basquiat Reader provides a full picture of the artist’s views on art and culture, his working process, as well as the critical significance of his work both then and now. It is my hope that by giving more people access to the primary sources, we will see more scholarship on this artist.

My new book project considers representations of black male athletes as a point of entry to thinking about how black men have historically been presented to (and positioned by) the white mainstream public as a fear/fantasy. More specifically, I examine the ways in which black masculinity is constructed in the visual realm, and how the black athletic body can shape the moral, physical, and social position of African American men more broadly. Over five chapters I analyze key moments in the history of the sport, prominent black athletes and their representation in the American popular press and visual art.

Art Journal, Spring 2019

JTP: That is such important work, especially as those constructions persist and accelerate in contemporary visual culture. What are your hopes for Art Journal during your tenure?

JMS: During my tenure I would like to continue to build on the global reach of the publication—in terms of both content and readership. I mean global here as something more than a keyword to signal “diversity.” I use global to signal an interconnected conversation between Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, South America, the Pacific—rather than a series of isolated references to an “other.” I want to think of how the perspective of modern and contemporary art from Mumbai or even Beijing connects to as well as lives separate from the touch-points of America and Europe. This is something that I began to explore in my edited forum, “Diversity and Difference,” published in Art Journal in 2016—that is, how can we think beyond the paradigm of margins and center?

I am also hoping to increase a direct engagement of artist members via the introduction of new features, such as “Object Lessons,” which will first appear in Fall 2019. This is an opportunity for artists to consider a specific object of visual culture that has directly impacted or influenced their own practice. I am also increasing the diversity of artists that we publish in Art Journal. For example, every artist project for issues published in 2019 was developed by a woman of color.

Finally, I want to highlight the role of the journal as a forum for professional conversations. Readers can expect to see short essays on fair use, censorship, and the white supremacist logic of art history—topics that typically are buried in whispers. I see Art Journal as a place where these difficult conversations and issues come to light. Many readers of Art Journal are also teachers, and I hope to bring more focus to issues of pedagogy over the coming years of my tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

How can we think beyond the paradigm of margins and center?

JTP: It’s exciting to see the direction you are bringing to it. What are some of your other arts-related recommendations at the moment?

JMS: I have really enjoyed seeing the conversation around #POCarthistory (started by Ananda Cohen-Aponte [who recently took over CAA’s Instagram]) develop on Twitter over the last months. As someone interested in our current moment I am constantly reading Hyperallergic and I have found the resources on the website of the Association for Critical Race Art History very important to my own pedagogical development. I am currently reading The Painter’s Touch by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth.

JTP: Do you have a favorite exhibition you’ve seen recently?

JMS: This year I really enjoyed the shows by Jack Whitten (Met Breuer) and Nari Ward (New Museum), but I am still reeling from the show of new paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Under-Song for a Cipher), which I saw at the New Museum two years ago. That show left me speechless.


The Spring 2019 issue of Art Journal is now online.

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