Postcard from Istanbul: Dr. Lewis Johnson, Fall 21 Randall Chair

In Fall 2021 the Art History Division is very excited to host Dr. Lewis Johnson as our Randall Chair Visiting Scholar. The Randall Chair was established in 2007 to honor the legacy of artist and educator Theodore Randall who is remembered as the architect of the School of Art and Design at Alfred and as a significant artist and organizer in the field.

Adrián Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Trotsky House, Büyükada, 2015.

It is now more than two decades since I moved to Istanbul, teaching, curating and writing about art, its histories and theories. I first visited the city for the 5th Istanbul Biennial in 1997, getting to know more about contemporary art here, but also finding I had much to learn about the history of West and East. Celebrated as a ‘bridge’ between cultures, Istanbul remains a contested space: sometimes inspiring dramatic, almost apocalyptic contemporary art—like Villar Rojas’ great cross-over of sculptural modes—some still refer to the city as Constantinople, the one-time capital of the Roman Empire, from the early 4th century, redeveloping what was founded, around a millennium before that, perhaps where the Biblical Flood had earlier taken place.

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, H Factor: Horses and Heroes, 9th Istanbul Biennial, Platform Contemporary Art Center, 2005.

Such spans of time, with the city’s palimpsests of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman cultures, can be dizzying, and not just for visitors. The canons of the history of art, Western and Eastern, need to be redeveloped to try to account for the energies that have flowed through this extraordinary place. During my time with you at Alfred, I shall be aiming to do some of this redevelopment with you and pass on something of these energies.

I have been lucky enough to be able to work with some very interesting Turkish artists, such as Ömer Uluç, who studied in the USA in the 1950s, and took gestural painting in directions that echoed the visual cultures of Istanbul, and Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, whose fantastic riff on the Triumphal Quadriga—the Four Horses in St Marks, Venice, spoils of the Crusades taken from the Hippodrome here—plays on cultural hierarchies, fragments and identities. More recently, I have worked with Gözde İlkin, whose painted and embroidered work, like that of other women artists from the region, such as Hale Tenger and İnci Eviner, explores different senses of belonging though the hybridizing of styles and techniques.

Gözde İlkin, At-Home Day, 15th Istanbul Biennial, Pera Museum, (2009) 2017.

In my Fall courses I aim to pass on an understanding of the arts that have responded so inventively to the complexities of this border zone between Europe and Asia. So, there will be a lecture course in the history of Western Orientalism and responses to it by artists from Turkey and the Middle East, from the eighteenth century on. Also, with Professor Gerar Edizel, I am teaching a seminar on the history of art since 1945 that will pick out new pathways in the kinds of things that count as art, such as assemblage, performance, installation, and interventionist art as well as video and digital media, but which will make room for the hybridizing of such genres of art along with senses of culture and belonging by artists from the Near and Middle East.

You can find some of my writing about artists mentioned here and others at

And my review of the most recent Istanbul Biennial online from 2019 at

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