November 1, 2012

When renowned painter and sculptor Jessica Stockholder came from Yale University's School of Art last year to head up the newly revitalized Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) at the University of Chicago, she heard a lot about "art and inquiry." But she will have none of that.

"Art is inquiry," she says. "It's not helpful or even reasonable to position art as distinct from inquiry."

As such, art fits very well into the mix at the University of Chicago, where inquiry is paramount. As with science or philosophy, business or religion—making, studying and appreciating art involves looking closely at one's surroundings and posing fundamental questions about why we are here and how we can or should live.

A recent tour by art students of physics labs on campus bore this out. Both groups of students realized that they were all into looking at and playing with things, whether it was called sculpting or painting, theorizing or experimenting. "They realized that there were so many similarities in their activities that it was difficult to tease out the differences, though they were working with different tools, in different places and with different sources of funding," Stockholder says.

This approach to art will help DOVA work more and better with other departments and programs around campus. Of course, interdisciplinary studies is a key strength of the University. But, as Stockholder puts it, "In order to have strong interdisciplinary studies you need strong disciplines."

Her immediate goal is to strengthen and grow DOVA. "The University has decided to value the arts and to foster serious conversation so that important work can be done here," she says. "My job is to give voice to that ambition and to link our activities at DOVA with the University, to Chicago and to the bigger world."

A "concrete" example of such an interdisciplinary connection is the recent effort to restore Wolf Vostell's concrete car that for years was on display in front of Midway Studios but is now in storage. Spearheaded by art history professor Christine Mehring, this project has engaged art, art history and chemistry students and faculty to understand and estimate the value of the piece and to discuss—practically and philosphically—what can and should be done with it.

Vostell was a German painter and sculptor associated with the Fluxus Movement, which expanded the definition of art. His automobile covered with concrete was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art before the University acquired it in the early 1970s.

"Jessica's appointment should help raise the profile of the University's small but excellent visual arts programs and DOVA's unusually talented, dedicated faculty," says Elspeth Carruthers, a research strategist at Arete, which is assisting DOVA and helping it connect with the rest of the University.

Arete is a research development program led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories, and Carruthers is a long-time collaborator of Stockholder's who played a role in attracting her to the University.

"Arete is a nimble administrative tool for helping to identify and facilitate the delicate adjustments that we will see happening over the coming years as the visual and performing arts continue to unfold as centers—rather than peripheries—of serious academic research here," Carruthers says.

That unfolding will be vastly leveraged by the new Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, just opened this spring, and the newly refurbished historic Midway Studios, where Stockholder and other DOVA faculty are moving their studios.

In addition to teaching and administering DOVA, Stockholder naturally plans to continue pursuing her own artistic endeavors. She is recognized internationally for creatively blending media and merging art with the environment or site where it is displayed."

I've already found that the University of Chicago's rich, fertile community is nurturing my own work," she says. "My overall goal is to make this a thriving, lively place for everyone to practice and/or appreciate art."

By Greg Borzo

This article was originally published at