Theses Doctoral

Ruins and Remains: Performative Sculpture and the Politics of Touch in the 1970s

Superfine, Molly

This dissertation investigates the materiality of performative sculpture in the Americas during the long 1970s through artists Beverly Buchanan (1940-2015) and Senga Nengudi (1943). United in their disenchantment with second-wave feminism, Buchanan and Nengudi are situated art-historically in the expanded fields of (post)minimalism, conceptualism, and the Black Arts Movement. These artists realize their objects by sourcing non-traditional artmaking materials within what this dissertation conjures as a haptic imaginary—an intervening corrective to both the second-wave feminist and postmodern art imaginaries of the 1970s. Their materials expose the limitations of the visual and offer alternate models of knowing.

For Buchanan’s frustulum series (1978-81), poured concrete, and later, tabby concrete, memorializes the textures of architectural sites to honor experiences of labor and displacement. Tabby concrete, a compound binding agent made of sand and lime, is a localized, inexpensive material that was often used by enslaved people in the southern United States, especially in coastal states like Georgia, which provide access to massive deposits of lime-rich oyster shells.

Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. series (1977) of pliable pantyhose and sand are anthropomorphic objects originally meant to be activated; they mimic bodily expansion, endurance, and fatigue. Pantyhose, made mostly of nylon, the world’s first fully synthetic fiber, are the product of decades of scientific and economic development, whose intertwined history with World War II offers a springboard to understand the potency of Nengudi’s experiments with the garment.

The artists’ materials become sites of investigation into memory, place, body, erotics, and precarity. By offering new epistemological methods of engagement that retaliate against the hegemony of the visual through their twinned interests in ruins for Buchanan, and remains for Nengudi, the artists realize a new womanist politic. Buchanan and Nengudi deploy, respectively, tabby concrete and pantyhose with sand to transmit historical and embodied knowledge. It is precisely through the activated sensorium of touch—imagined and physical—that the past is transmitted and materialized.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Jones, Kellie E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 1, 2023