Meet Columbia’s ‘First-Ever’ Art History Professor of LGBTQ+ Studies

Julia Bryan-Wilson's academic interests grew out of a political commitment to finding alternative articulations for marginalized subjects.

Eve Glasberg
November 29, 2022

This is Julia Bryan-Wilson’s first semester at Columbia, where she has joined the Department of Art History and Archaeology as a professor of contemporary art and LGBTQ+ theory, and the Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender as a faculty member.

Her research interests encompass feminist and queer theory, theories of artistic labor, performance and dance, production/fabrication, craft histories, photography, video, visual culture of the nuclear age, and collaborative practices. Bryan-Wilson has written several books, including Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, which was named a New York Times best art book of the year. Her book on sculptor Louise Nevelson will be published in 2023.

Bryan-Wilson talks with Columbia News about her excitement at being at the university, her meandering journey to becoming a professor, and her advice to those thinking of following in her academic footsteps.

How does it feel to be at Columbia?

Thrilling! I am so honored to be the first-ever professor of LGBTQ+ studies in Columbia’s storied art history department. Along with my scholarship on questions of labor, collectivity, and solidarity, I focus especially on queer feminist artists and methods, which feels particularly significant given the current legislative attacks on queer rights, women’s rights, and trans rights.

What are you teaching this semester?

Two classes: an undergraduate seminar on handicraft and contemporary art, and a graduate seminar on queer feminist theories in art. The students in both courses are fantastic, and we have been having high-level conversations that often begin with questions of materials, formal qualities, and process, but then resonate out to encompass a wide range of topics: Marxist theories of alienation, queer theories of color critique, Black feminist thought, HIV/AIDS activism.

Recently, we had a deep dialogue about the work of the Los Angeles-based artist Candice Lin, in relation to anti-Asian violence during the pandemic. We also talked about her use of scent and issues of consent and implication within the art institution; I felt we were putting queer feminist theory into practice in a nuanced way. 

What was your path to a career as a university professor?

It was a bit meandering. I majored in English literature as an undergraduate and was immersed in the critical theories of thinkers like bell hooks, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, and Eve Sedgwick. I did a lot of exploring and wasn’t sure what my path would be. I took a semester off, and lived in Santiago, Chile. In the summers, I worked at a lesbian bookstore and at a rape crisis center in Houston, Texas. I thought I might want to be a full-time activist.

After college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I was a food service worker and a temp, and I started making zines and participating in DIY/punk stuff. I was ambivalent about the white rich masculinity that seemed to suffuse the discipline of art history, but I was increasingly interested in art in times of emergency, such as during the AIDS crisis and periods of war (my father is a Vietnam War veteran).

I ended up pursuing a PhD in art history at the University of California, Berkeley, where incredible conversations were happening in the late 1990s around the politics of social art history vis-à-vis race, class, gender, and sexuality. I have a lot of stories about grad school and the formative friendships I made with other students, but one interesting fact is that I collaborated with Frank Wilderson III—a key theorist of Afropessimism—on a video project for a class we were both in. We met on the picket line as we agitated to form a grad student union. I also fell in love with teaching, and that led me to want to be a professor. 

How did your interests in contemporary art and LGBTQ theory develop, and how much do they overlap?

Both my investment in recent art and my orientation toward queer theory came out of a political commitment to thinking about how marginalized subjects can find alternative articulations, and how artistic production can be a critical resource for survival. One of the things I hope to emphasize in my research and teaching is how these two arenas (art and theory) are intimately braided together.

I do not approach art as an object to which theory can be applied, as if laying a template over it, or trying to find some magic keyword that will unlock interpretation. My queer feminist lens is by no means proscriptive; instead, I try to grapple with the many histories that are woven into any act of making. 

What are you working on now?

I just completed a book on the sculptor Louise Nevelson that asks questions about her use of wood, her use of the color black, and her found object assemblages; I place her in conversation with Black artists like Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar. An exhibition I curated in Greater Manchester in the U.K. on the queer feminist textile artist Liz Collins opened earlier this fall. And my job as a curator-at-large at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil continues, with a few projects in the works there.

Advice for anyone pursuing a career in academia?

I have always come to my academic interests organically, without a premeditated strategy or an overarching sense of needing to fulfill phantasmatic expectations about success. Sometimes I am enthusiastic about my subjects, but just as often, I am worried about them, or troubled by them, or both. In any case, I never know where I will end up when I begin to write. I would encourage any student who is interested in academia to remain curious about things, and to delve into what they are passionate about, whether it’s an affirmative passion or a negative one.

Finally, a practical piece of advice is to take time off outside of the structure of the academy, if you can. Even though I was scraping by with low-paid temp jobs and struggling to pay off my student debt in Portland, those years changed the direction of my thought and gave me a lot of respect for people who are trying to intervene in culture.