Avis Berman, writer, curator, historian of American art, architecture and culture
THE ROLE OF THE ART HISTORIAN IS CRUCIAL TO THE KNOWLEDGE AND APPRECIATION OF OUR CULTURAL LEGACY IN THE VISUAL ARTS. THE HISTORIAN IS THE KEEPER OF OUR HERITAGE DOCUMENTING AND SHARING HISTORICAL AND GEOPOLITICAL INFLUENCES ON ART, DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF A WORK OF ART BOTH IN TERMS OF ITS MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES AND ITS PLACE IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PERIOD IN WHICH IT WAS CONCEIVED.
AVIS BERMAN IS AN INFLUENTIAL AND DELIGHTFUL PRESENCE IN THE ART WORLD. HER LECTURES AND WRITING CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY TO OUR APPRECIATION AND UNDERSTANDING OF 20th CENTURY AMERICAN ART. SHE IS THE AUTHOR OF MANY BOOKS AND ARTICLES; REBELS ON EIGHTH STREET: JULIANA FORCE AND THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, EDWARD HOPPER’S NEW YORK AND CO-AUTHOR OF KATHARINE KUH’S MEMOIR. MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH MODERN ART: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH A LEGENDARY CURATOR, TO NAME A FEW.
WITHOUT AVIS BERMAN’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE SCHOLARSHIP OF AMERICAN ART, OUR UNDERSTANDING AND APPRECIATION OF THIS PERIOD WOULD BE GREATLY DIMINISHED. HER WRITINGS HAVE PROVIDED A WEALTH OF INFORMATION ON OUR AMERICAN CULTURE AND THE INNOVATIVE AND REVOLUTIONARY PRESENCE OF AMERICAN ART THAT EMERGED IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY.
IT IS A PRIVILEGE TO WELCOME AVIS BERMAN TO THE LRFA BLOG.
AVIS, YOUR PRIMARY SCHOLASTIC FOCUS AT UNIVERSITY AND GRADUATE LEVELS WAS IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. WHAT PROMPTED YOUR SHIFT TO WRITER AND CRITIC IN THE ARTS?
While looking for a job in my field, I got a position as a researcher at the Smithsonian, and I got so excited by the wealth of American art around me, which I had never seen in such mass and depth, that I decided that I wanted to learn more about it. However, I have never regretted studying literature – it has helped me in both analyzing and in writing.
DID YOU GROW UP WITH AN INTEREST AND EXPOSURE TO ART AND, IF SO, WHAT PARTICULAR PERIODS OF WORK RESONATED WITH YOU INITIALLY?
I wasn’t enormously exposed to art, but I grew up in the Hartford area, and I did go to the Wadsworth Atheneum. But my sister was an artist, and I enjoyed taking courses in high school. I wasn’t talented, but I got high marks because I always had ideas that I executed.
DURING YOUR COLLEGE AND POST-GRADUATE YEARS, DID YOU ELECT TO TAKE COURSES IN STUDIO ART AND/OR ART HISTORY?
I went to Bucknell University as an undergraduate, and I took some survey courses in art history, but I ended up choosing literature as a major because there were no great art collections nearby – Philadelphia was about three hours to the east and Pittsburgh three hours to the west. We had to study through slides and minor examples from the Kress Foundation (which used to give works of art to universities as study collections), and I found that looking at reproductions alone was not the way to learn about art, so I decided I would not major in it. But evidently I was mistaken, because I was at Bucknell with two women who became very distinguished art historians and museum directors – Doreen Bolger and Lynda Roscoe Hartigan – who had no trouble with an art major at Bucknell.
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR PERIOD OF ART THAT WAS THE FOCAL POINT OF YOUR STUDIES? IF SO, WHAT MOTIVATED YOUR ENTHUSIASM AND INTEREST IN THAT PERIOD?
I have always loved the period 1890-1950 in American art, and I continue to do so. I am fascinated by the prospect of artists struggling to find their artistic identity and establish their artistic heritage. Also, when I started, the only period of American art not considered provincial was 1945 to the present, with an emphasis on Abstract Expressionism and internationalism.
When I started working at the Smithsonian, it was the first time I saw a painting by John Sloan, and I became curious about that mass of semi-buried history, which was not at all fashionable then. I was also fortunate enough to be encouraged by superb mentors, including Adelyn Breeskin and Lloyd Goodrich.
IN THE NEXT LRFA BLOG, AVIS WILL SHARE HER PROFESSIONAL HISTORY AS A WRITER AND HISTORIAN. WE HOPE YOU WILL PARTICULARLY ENJOY EXCERPTS OF SOME OF THE ACTUAL TEXTS AND ILLUSTRATIONS OF HER WRITINGS.
PLEASE JOIN US!