Illustration: Agata Nowicka
DeLue credits her father, an artist who worked in the education department at a children’s museum, with showing her how to flex different intellectual muscles simultaneously. She might spend many hours in an art museum and then head off to compete for a mathematics award. The fact that art and math are often viewed as being on opposite ends of the academic spectrum “never occurred to me,” she says.
This interdisciplinary approach now permeates DeLue’s work at Princeton, where she focuses on the intersections of art and science as the Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 Professor in American Art and is chair of the art and archaeology department.
DeLue’s Work: A SamplingTHE UNPICTURABLE What does sound look like? How about time? In the late 18th and 19th centuries, artistic and scientific communities became interested in making “pictures of things that shouldn’t be picturable,” DeLue says. In her current book project, Impossible Images and the Perils of Picturing, DeLue looks at examples of images that attempt to convey invisible concepts or phenomena — such as Charles Darwin’s 1859 line-and-dot chart from Origin of the Species, meant to represent evolution. DeLue explores what the creators were trying to accomplish by using a static medium to tackle dynamic or intangible subject matter.
ART’S DARK SIDE Art has a history of being used to serve nefarious political and economic ends, DeLue notes. For example: For “the justification and perpetuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she says, pictures were produced “to serve as evidence of the inferiority of African-descended peoples.” In a forthcoming essay, DeLue is looking at how archaeology in 19th-century America was focused on validating the concept of Manifest Destiny by suggesting “that Native Americans were a vanishing race” and casting Indigenous people as “pre-modern, pre-history, ancient, and of the past” and therefore primed for white colonialization.
BEAUTY AND PAIN While examining the work of contemporary American artists who tackle difficult topics such as slavery, blackface, and lynching, “I started to notice that they combine the subject matter with exquisite beauty,” DeLue says. At first glance, for example, a viewer might notice only the dainty charm of Kara Walker’s paper cutouts or the colorful, jovial nature of Michael Ray Charles’ paintings. But then, “You would realize what their beautiful forms were depicting” — such as Walker’s images of slavery or Charles’ caricatures of Black people. By combining traumatic subject matter with beauty, these artists were trying to shift the common narrative. Art “can distort reality so that people wind up, paradoxically, seeing the truth.”