Susan Sidlauskas, Rutgers University, Clark Fellow (Spring 2019)
February 19, 2019
The cosmopolitan son of a physician who authored and illustrated a widely read tract on bandaging, John Singer Sargent was as obsessed as any “natural philosopher” with the mutability of matter. He dissolved the distinctions among fabric, flesh, and paint with the pictorial equivalent of dissection and its counter-activities: masking, binding, suturing, folding, and wrapping, sometimes within the very same figure. The artist was not simply bearing witness to all the Gilded Age finery he painted, as is often presumed. He was engineering its pictorial disintegration through a process in which skin, hair and fabric dissolved only to be reconstituted as other, more ambiguous substances.
An Update from Susan Sidlauskas
It’s been a little over a year since I delivered the Sargent lecture at the Clark. I wish I were able to announce that the book then in-process, John Singer Sargent and the Physics of Touch, is on the verge of completion. But until my administrative duties lighten during the summer, progress will be slow. However, being at the Clark last spring (or more precisely, during a very long winter) allowed me to dig more deeply into my material and come to a fuller realization of how to conceptualize the book. The Clark was the ideal setting for presenting relatively untested work to a welcoming public. The next day revolved around a lunch seminar of colleagues. The questions and comments were challenging, sometimes difficult—but all were posed with the most generous of intentions: making the work better. An abundance of suggestions—new books, both within and outside art history, articles to read in fields I had not considered, and entirely new interconnections—poured forth. Although I cannot say my writing speed accelerated once I returned to Rutgers, I do believe that at the Clark I finally developed a sense of clarity and a new confidence about what the book could become. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the entire staff of RAP for creating the atmosphere that made this intellectual sea change possible. Director Caroline Fowler led by example, and delivered what I am convinced were the most generous and detailed introductions that any of us will receive in our lifetimes. My deepest thanks go to my fellow Fellows: Jennifer Bajorek, Jill Casid, Kris Cohen, Philippe Cordez, and Celeste Olalquiaga for their rigor, patience, and playfulness. I will miss our dinners at “The Residence.”
Professor, History and Theory of Modern Art and Chair