Projects relating to art and art history.

Nazism in California
and how the physical, the photographic, and the fictitious bring the unwritten historical past into the present.

I recently took a brilliant course with Professors Alexander Nemerov and Amir Eshel which explored the artistic legacy of World War II and how the war continues to echo in our culture and lives today. The questions and considerations raised in the course led me down a journey of discovery, in which I realized the extent to which the war shaped the physical landscape not only across the ocean but in the spaces I call home.

This feeling was first sparked by the image at right, by the photographer John Gutmann—while I would have guessed at first glance that it depicts somewhere in Germany, or even a scene from a movie, it was taken at San Francisco City Hall in 1935.

I wrote a much longer piece about the presence of Nazism in the United States during the war, and in California in particular. It discusses the sanitized, idealized yet popular view of American involvement in the war—while we (myself included) are compelled to think of our country as an unstoppable, unilateral force against evil, the reality of the 1930s and 40s was much more complicated. This view not only obscures the truth of history, but leaves us vulnerable to the reemergence and persistence of evil today.

Along the way, I reference in a host of photographs by John Gutmann, Charles Lindbergh's considered (but never realized) presidential run, Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America (shockingly prescient, and recently made into a popular TV series), an old Nazi compound in the hills of Los Angeles, Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, San Francisco's Whittier Mansion, and more. The full piece is below, or linked here.

How can we quantify style changes over time?
Analyzing the transition from Rococo to Neoclassical palettes during the 18th century.

I've updated this page for the first time in a few years, this time with a much more-nuanced analysis of artistic style transitions. Instead of dazzling with pretty colors, I've learned to dazzle with math.

Rococo and Neoclassicism were two of the most prominent movements in 18th-century European art. Their influence extended to many artistic domains, including painting, sculpture, and architecture. The difference in palettes between the Rococo and Neoclassical styles may seem evident when qualitatively comparing the most famous works from each movement; I aimed to quantify those changes in an empirical way.

The basic idea is that we can fit a Gaussian to the chromaticity coordinates of all colors in a set of paintings to quantitatively represent the colors in that set, enabling us to summarize and compare movements, explore palette changes over time, determine which paintings are most representative of a given movement, and classify paintings by their style.

The results are fairly strong—Rococo palettes were most prominent in the 1730s and 40s; Neoclassical palettes came to dominate over the course of the 1750s, but their influence had subsided by the 1790s.

The full paper can be found here.

What is modern art?
In a lot more depth.

So while the last graphic was cute and probably a bit helpful for someone who wanted a 10-second overview, it left me wanting a little more once those 10 seconds were up.

And, as usual, in looking for just a little more I did a whole lot more.

On the right is a timeline of about 100 paintings that helped to define modern art (from Impressionism to present), and are famous examples of the various art movements throughout that time. They are also grouped by movement. Some of these movements may seem familiar to most (Impressionism, Pop Art), and thus, those examples will be more famous. But I also wanted to capture other important but less popular movements that still had a big impact on the shape of modern art (Synchromism, de Stijl).

The second diagram (below) is by far the more informative. It provides a handy-dandy description of each time period in modern art history. It's not grouped by era, but instead by the actual changes to art that occurred during that time.

Oh, and a pro tip I learned whilst creating these: Pages is a terrible software for documents larger than size tiny. I would provide the pages versions as well in case the public wanted to manipulate the graphics in some way (as I'm sure you do), but I value your sanity more than my own.

What's that? You're wondering why I used Pages? Well, the truth is that once my document got larger than size tiny and the performance began to be affected, I had made too much progress and was in too deep to start over. The only way out was through. Plus, I liked the way that the curvy era shapes looked. Don't they look cool?

Now that I'm done, though, I can reasonably say: never again.

And the moment you've all been waiting for: both of these diagrams, along with a simple version with just the paintings and no special effects, zipped up like a sweater in the winter. Get your sweater here.

What is modern art?
Explaining the inexplicable.

Modern art is an incredibly difficult era of art (for me at least) to understand. What makes a work modern? What about post-modern? How about avant-garde?

In order to help solve this incredibly important and pressing problem, I've created a little graphic. It's a good, super basic overview of the differences between these eras.

As always, it comes in download.

Which art is the best art?
Or, what you need to know to sound educated about art.

Yes, I know that these works come only from Western artists, which is why I'm re-labelling this diagram to be the greatest 50 works of art in the Western world.

I also know that there are not exactly 50 works. There are 58. However, "the 58 greatest works of all-time" doesn't sound quite as nice. For those that favor exact numbers, I've included the box reading "686 Years of Art History". I hope that is enough precision to satisfy.

Without further ado, here are the 50 greatest works in the Western world. The image quality is poor. If you care about that sort of thing, I've zipped up a high-quality one here.