Date Awarded

Fall 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Alan Wallach

Committee Member

Alan C. Braddock

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Robin Veder


This dissertation is about modernism in Washington, D.C., specifically about a series of encounters between the visual program that helped realize the city’s modernization and works of art that put this way of seeing to the test. The modernization of Washington took hold of the city in the twentieth century in large part because of the advent of a new way of representing Washington. In short, Washington’s modernization would rely on a grammar of representation that constructed an easily legible image of the city as well as spectators capable of reading it as such. Numerous artists working in Washington exposed the workings of this rhetoric of modernity by creating art that, due to its inherent and sometimes-deliberate wordlessness, ceased to convey the modern city’s ideological messages and allegorical narratives. Instead, these artworks, by resisting or negating language, offered material expressions of knowledge and embodied structures of feeling—that is, they conveyed modern experiences that fell beyond the pale of language. This project employs six episodes from Washington’s modernization in order to assess the tension between legible imagery and lived experience. The first chapter examines the creation of Washington’s modern urban structure through the figure of andrew Mellon whose corporate bodies launched a massive urban renewal campaign that culminated in the establishment of the National Gallery. The second chapter is concerned with three artists who leveraged their own silence to create their work: the photographer Robert Scurlock, whose silent observation of the famous Marian anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial evoked the singer’s own silence in the face of a progressivist narrative of civil rights; the poet Sterling Brown, whose redacted history of black Washington, originally written under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project, conjures parts of the city that were being systematically erased; and the painter Jacob Kainen, whose dissolution of the city’s visible forms in his abstract works went hand in hand with a theory of negation that called up the wonder and mystery often unavailable though literal representations. The next chapter examines how written efforts to contextualize Alma Thomas’s paintings have inadvertently removed her work from her own embodied artistic practice—a practice, I argue, that maps out the city as it underwent a series of urban renewal projects. The conclusion examines the failure of the rhetoric of modernity on its own terms during the public display of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery. as the painting appeared in various commercial and media outlets, people claimed to hear it “speak,” yet the incident reveals how modern experience took shape precisely when an artwork refused to say anything whatsoever.



© The Author

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