Jennifer L. Roberts
Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Harvard College Professor, and Chair of the Program in American Studies. She is an art historian specializing in American art, with particular interests in landscape, material culture, print culture, and the history of science. She received her A.B. from Stanford and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale, and joined the Harvard faculty as an Assistant Professor in 2002.
Roberts has received numerous awards and fellowships for her teaching and research. She currently holds a Harvard College Professorship, recognizing distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching, and in 2005 she received the Roslyn Abramson Award for excellence in teaching undergraduates. She has been awarded research fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center and the Clark Art Institute, and has accepted an invitation to occupy the Slade Professorship in Fine Arts at Cambridge University in 2018.
Within an art-historical discipline built on assumptions about the virtuality, ephemerality, and transcendence of images, Roberts has consistently sought to return attention to the material intelligence – and material beauty -- of art. Her first book, Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (2004) examines the models of history developed by the prominent land artist Robert Smithson, arguing that Smithson attempted to redefine historical thinking so that it would no longer rely on optical metaphors (no more historical “backgrounds,” “horizons,” or “perspectives;” no more “looking back”). Smithson took his models instead from geology and physics, imagining history as a series of alluviations, depositions, and stratifications.
Her second book, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (forthcoming in December 2013), forges a material history of visual communication by tracing the literal transportation of pictures through the swamps, forests, oceans, and cities of the Anglo-American landscape between 1760 and 1860. "Visual communication" in early America was a fraught practice beset by intractable physical challenges – the long delays inherent in long-distance reception, concerns about the stability and mnemonic capacity of images, the uneasy mingling of artworks with everyday commodities in transit, and so forth. Roberts shows that early American art, confronting a world searching for long-distance cohesion, internalized the complications of its own transmission.
In 2012, in collaboration with four Harvard undergraduates, Roberts curated the exhibition Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print for the Harvard Art Museums. The project sparked her interest in the broad cultural implications of the physical operations of printing – reversal, layering, incision, contact, etc. – and led her to her current book project, tentatively titled The Printerly Intelligence of American Art.
"The Art of Looking," will introduce students to the humanities by exploring the aesthetic, historical, and social intricacy of the visual world. We are immersed every day in a field of visual information, and we are avid users of visual technologies such as smartphones and digital cameras. Given the casual fluency of our visual lives, few of us recognize how thoroughly our habits, experiences, and ways of thinking have been formed by interfaces that have long world histories. The geometric structure of Google Maps, the tool through which most of us now envision the world, is based on a peculiarly distorted form of sailing chart invented for sixteenth-century navigators. The colors of the consumer objects we see and use every day are not whimsically invented on the spot by designers – they are selected from codified palettes using systems of color communication developed in the early 1900s (to get a sense of the complexity of color communication, try to provide an exact description of a particular shade of periwinkle to a faraway friend on the phone). Our most fundamental understanding of a "picture" as a flat, framed rectangular surface depicting objects in space -- the basis of everything from the fine art of oil painting to the structure of the computer screen – took millennia to emerge and remains a field of broad cultural and cross-cultural contestation. After exploring these and many other topics in the visual humanities, we hope that our students will have been transformed – that they will never look at anything the same way again.