What I did on my summer vacation…

by Jessi DiTillio

This summer I went to New York for my first big push of dissertation research. My research was split into two fun sections, Jack Smith and Glenn Ligon. These two might seem fully unrelated to each other, but hang on, cause I haven’t explained my project to you yet... this explanation is coming in a future post.

For my Jack Smith research, I went to the Fales Special Collection at NYU’s Bobst library, which was a little blast from my undergrad past. That library has presence—some may say a forbidding presence, but you can’t deny the strength of their collections. Jack Smith’s archive was pretty wild, as anyone familiar with his work might guess. An overwhelming mess of hand-scrawled notes and ideas for films and plays, scripts, collages, posters, books… I have close to a thousand photographs of interesting items that I have yet to fully organize and process. Uh oh.

I sat in that archive rifling through things from about 10 to 4 every day for 5 days. The experience was one of alternating waves of feeling—boredom, excitement, intimacy, doubt, confusion, inspiration, boredom again. By the third day I hit a rhythm, and started to feel weirdly close to Jack. When I hit the medical records file (a file I wasn’t even sure I wanted to look at), dry documents took on a strangely intense emotional pallor. I really started to leak (emotionally) when I pulled out the pamphlet for Jack’s memorial service. It felt as though I’d spent several days of living in his head, absorbing his spontaneous and obtuse and absurd writings, and this made me forget that he died. The shock I felt holding an invitation to his memorial in my hand is hard to describe.

My Glenn Ligon research was less like being plunged into a misty world of feelings, but was pragmatic, efficient, and highly satisfying. The Guggenheim research staff really has their shit together (excuse my language). The Guggenheim’s New York offices aren’t actually in the museum, but in a skyscraper downtown, right across from the World Trade Center. The remarkably helpful young curatorial assistant ushered me to a chic modern reading room that looked a bit like a page from an IKEA catalogue (you know how the rooms always look nicer in the catalogue than in real life), and laid down a thick file in front of me. In two magic hours, all my practical questions about the structure and material of the installation were answered! You can’t ask for more!

In addition to dissertation research, I saw some amazing shows at the Brooklyn Museum, including "We Wanted a Revolution" curated by Kellie Jones, and a very lovely Georgia O'Keefe show curated by the inimitable Wanda Corn.

Jessi DiTillio