Professor specializes in teaching the art of reviewing art

April 11, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- People walk through contemporary art galleries daily, liking some exhibits, disliking others, often without understanding the work. Reading reviews by noted art historians such as Sarah K. Rich, associate professor of art history, might help those who want to add some depth to their art-viewing experience. Rich’s criticism and scholarship on contemporary art has made her a regular reviewer for Artforum, one of the most distinguished monthly magazines focusing on the current art scene. 

Teaching at Penn State since 1999, Rich specializes in art after 1940, with particular emphasis on art from the United States and France during the 1950s and ‘60s. Rich started to establish her scholarly niche in contemporary art with a fall 2005 essay, “Bridging the Generation Gaps in Barnett Newman’s 'Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue' Paintings,” in American Art, which is published by the Smithsonian and the University of Chicago. She argued that Newman’s abstract painting in the ‘60s responded to the work of younger artists, including Ellsworth Kelly. In order to make the comparison visually, Rich contacted Kelly for permission to use an image of his painting in her article. He was impressed with her work and invited her to write an essay about his upcoming show at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. The result was a crossover from writing historical material about art of the past to writing a more critical text about art of the present.

According to Rich, the episode taught her a great deal about working with living artists. “You have to be both bold and diplomatic, as well as a good listener. If you follow up in the right way, such interactions with artists can put you on exciting paths professionally and intellectually.”

When preparing to write a review of an artist’s current work or an exhibition, Rich tries to treat each exhibition as unique, without letting previous exposure to either that artist or similar works affect what she sees (to the extent that’s ever possible). She initially just walks through the exhibit without trying to interpret. “I want to remain open to the work I’m seeing, perceive what’s strange or new without trying to normalize the experience with connections to things I’m already comfortable with,” she explained. Only after that does she call on her extensive knowledge of both the artist and contemporary art. Finally, when writing a review, she considers the audience that will be reading it — what will give them the best summary of the show, but also what will provide them pleasure as readers.

Rich’s knowledge of Ad Reinhardt proved essential when writing a recent review of the artist’s exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York. Reinhardt is an artist known primarily for “Black Paintings,” made in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The paintings are 5-foot square canvases with nine squares of black, each with subtly different hues of yellow, blue, green or red that, according to the artist, should be shown in a low, twilight light. “While other aspects of Reinhardt’s art were successfully showcased, the ‘Black Paintings’ were not. The lighting for the paintings was high and bright and cast shadows directly onto the painting, negating the artist’s desired effect,” noted Rich. “A casual viewer may not have known this (or known why that was important) unless they read a review. Armed with that information, they can revisit the art and see it in a ‘new light.’”

Rich is passionate about educating both art patrons and her students. “To write the history of art is to try to know the object, the artist and the context within which he/she was working,” said Rich. “But it is also to produce an intelligent, well-crafted argument that is well-substantiated and articulated through precise language. Writing skills are imperative for my students to master, whether they are reviewing an exhibition or writing a research-oriented article.”

Rich’s current book project, "Past Flat: Other Sides to American Abstraction in the Cold War" (University of California Press, spring 2015), addresses the unintended overlaps between mid-century consumer culture and the abstract painting produced by artists such as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland. Research for the book has been supported by Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, and the College of Arts and Architecture, as well as a postdoctoral grant from the Getty Research Institute. Rich has also begun research for a second book about Jean Dubuffet’s collaborations with other artists.

A native of Wisconsin, Rich received her bachelor of arts degree from Northwestern University, and master and doctor of philosophy degrees from Yale University. She has lectured at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yale University, Harvard University and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, among others. She has also enthusiastically served as a speaker for the Penn State Alumni Association’s Huddle with the Faculty and City Lights programs. Rich has received awards and recognition for her dedication to research, including a Resident Faculty Fellowship at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, and a Visiting Fellowship at the University of Sassari in Sardegna, Italy. 

A recipient of the College of Arts and Architecture Faculty Award for Outstanding Teaching, she said she is a “big advocate” for in-the-classroom teaching. “In lecture and discussion, I can better share enthusiasm and passion for my subject, and for learning in general. I want students to learn that passion for learning even more than I want them to learn about any specific work of art,” she said.

According to Rich, teaching in the classroom is liberating. “For that hour and fifteen minutes, there are no outside distractions. No cell phones. No emails. I get to focus exclusively on something that I love in the presence of other people who are ready to love it too. It’s total bliss.”

  • Sarah Rich, Associate Professor of Art History

    Sarah Rich, is an associate professor of art history at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017