I got my degree in Art History from a small college of about 3,000 students in Central Pennsylvania. By the time I was done, I had probably only seen an incredibly small fraction of the works I wrote about, maybe one or two on day trips to New York or Washington DC. For many art historians, this is probably the case. Because the majority of objects of art history are paintings and sculptures, a good-enough sort of analysis can be conducted based on photographs and contextualizing historical information. Outside of very close investigations into underpainting, verso inscriptions, and other material quirks, most times a high quality photograph will do if you set out to write an analysis of a visual work, or at least we convince ourselves it does to keep the practice of Art History remotely sustainable and accessible.
Then, for my senior year thesis project, I moved on to writing about the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s and its prefiguration in movements like Fluxus and Gutai. Oftentimes, finding photographs of the works became a challenge and even fewer were still intact or had been re-enacted in the time since the original exhibitions discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years. Six Years is an incredibly interesting book because it is halfway between formal archive and personal scrapbook, a close-read of one perspective on what it was like to identify and formalize an artistic sensibility and mold it, often with her own two hands, into a program of exhibitions. Lippard frequently remade conceptual art pieces on the spot for her “numbers shows,” and despite her impressive archiving skills evident in the text, these great efforts of combined curating and art making usually ended up evading thorough photographic documentation. Each grainy, black and white, mostly unspecific photo I could find and tentatively identify a few of the artworks in was a blessing.