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BA History of Art / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

Course unit details:
Like Water in Water

Unit code AHCP30581
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Northern California's Pacific Ocean, giant redwoods, Sierra Mountains, sun, snow, and the city of San Francisco gave way to a distinct post-war artistic vision. This course's visual landscape focuses on two integral artists of the place and time: the photographer Minor White (1908-1976) and the sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926-2013).

According to Rebecca Solnit, the natural beauty of  San Francisco's environs gave way to alternative institutions: including a  'public' gay scene (baths, bars, poetry readings) and the San Francisco Zen Center. This time and place afforded the original work of Asawa and White.

The pristine black and white photographs of Minor White reflect the Zen-erotics that he discovered in the Bay Area. In this place and time, White successfully refused the female form, so central to his predecessors (Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston). From his lens and the landscape around him emerged an idealised male body.

Interned during the war, the adolescent Asawa drew by day and night, within the wired enclosure of the camp. These drawings became her crocheted wire sculptures, which are both optimistically open and oppressively containing. Asawa's lifelong, modernist series of families of  'Japanese lanterns', speak a 'feminine aesthetic', which also reflects San Francisco under the cloud of  'Hiroshima'.


This course unit aims to provide a historical, cultural and theoretical framework for understanding California's Bay Area as an epicentre of new artistic visions (photographic and sculptural) in the post-war period, which is often overshadowed by the New York painting scene.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:
• Think critically about the role of landscape and visual aesthetics.
• Think critically about the urban landscape and visual aesthetics.
• Think critically about how to use biography in the history of art, especially artist's journals.
• Think critically about spirituality and visual aesthetics, specifically Zen Buddhism, which was instrumental in the work of both Minor White and Ruth Asawa.
• Think critically about sexuality (queer, feminine, masculine) and visual aesthetics.
a. Is the 1970s concept of the feminine aesthetic still useful?
b. Does queer theory depoliticise the politics and history of gay identity?
• Think critically about the relationship between form and content in works of art.
• Develop a framework for analysing analogue photography historically.
a. Darkroom procedures.
b. A general history of photography
c. Sequence and the photograph.
• Develop a framework for analysing sculpture.
a. Ruth Asawa's unique process of crocheting wire into a three-dimensional form.


Topics in the seminar will include:
1. Ansel Adams and his relationship to both Minor White and Ruth Asawa.
a. His unsettling photographs from his 1933-34 visit to Manaznar, a California internment camp.
b. How Minor White learned photography's 'Zone System' from Ansel Adams.
2. Imogen Cunningham's photographs of Ruth Asawa.
3. Modern Architecture and its experimental visions as a source of imagery for Ruth Asawa.  Both Asawa and her husband, the San Francisco architect Albert Lainer. studied under Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College.
a. Art for living: the renovated barn constructed by Asawa and Lainer, built in Sonoma County (beginning in the 1950s).
4. Lucy Lippard's farmed art historical From The Center  (1976,on the feminine/feminist aesthetic) and its connections to the work of Ruth Asawa.

Teaching and learning methods

This course is seminar based. Student will participate in class discussion based on set reading. Readings will be available via BlackBoard.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of the course students will be able to:

• Discuss key issues in West Coast art of the post-war period.
• Discuss post-war art as a response to WWII.
• Discuss the uniqueness of the San Francisco Bay Area, in terms of the natural environment and its urban culture, as setting a stage for an alternative body of work to the New York scene.
• To  comment knowledgeably on debates in art as informed by and separate from identity politics.
• To understand the meanings and use of metaphor.
• Understand and present material on specific images or writings in the class.
• To be able to use a range of materials when researching, including fiction, poetry, the essay and personal journals.

Intellectual skills

By the end of the course students will be able to:
• Analyse photographic images.
• Analyse sculpture.
• Consider the influence of the domestic arts on women's sculpture
•  Read and critically analyse written sources related to art and writing in modern art.
• Produce a well-reasoned argument on specific issues or debates surrounding the work of post-war American West-Coast artists.
• Consider the influence of Zen Buddhism on certain artistic practices.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:
• Produce detailed visual analyses.
• Carry out supervised research.
• Produce a professionally presented and coherently argued essay.
• Give a presentation using Powerpoint and a concise handout with a bibliography.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:
•  Critically evaluate written and visual sources
•  Present coherent arguments in written work
•  Manage time effectively in order to complete assignments
•  Present material in class using PowerPoint and respond to questions arising from the presentation
•  Use PowerPoint and Word in order to present work professionally
•  Respond to feedback in order to improve their study skills and understanding of material discussed in class

Employability skills

Analytical skills
¿ Reflection on discussions and assignments enabling future improvement
Group/team working
¿ Working in a team and leading and participating in discussion
Project management
¿ Time management and being able to work to deadlines
Oral communication
¿ Presenting an argument to an audience and being able to field questions
¿ Working, with guidance, on research including finding suitable material for assessments and being able to assess this material
Written communication
¿ Presenting written material in a professional format

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%
Oral assessment/presentation 10%

Feedback methods

• Oral feedback on individual presentation
• Written feedback on essays 1 and 2
• Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Barthes, Roland, An Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982)

Brunnell, Peter, Minor White: The Eye That Shapes (Princeton: The Art Museum Princeton University and New York: Bullfinch Press/Little Brown and Company: 1989).

Lippard, Lucy, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art  (New York: Plume, 1976)

Lyon, Fred, San Francisco: A Portrait of a City 1940-1960 (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014)

Martineu, Paul, Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit (Los Angeles: The J Paul Getty Museum, 2014)

Cornell, Daniell (ed.), The Sculptures of Ruth Asawa (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Solnit, Rebecca, An Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (Berkeley: UC Press, 2010).

Weston, Edward, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume II, California edited by Nancy Newhall (New York: Aperture, 1973).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Carol Mavor Unit coordinator

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