Skip to main content

Faculty Spotlight: Sandra Zalman

A Q&A with author and Program Director of Art History, Sandra Zalman, Ph.D.

Q: Please provide your educational history. 

A: As an undergraduate majoring in Psychology at UC Berkeley, I decided to take an Art History class as an elective. The class was on abstract painting, taught by TJ Clark (who was transformative for the field, though I didn’t know it at the time). The way TJ Clark spoke about art was unlike anything I’d ever encountered and it transfixed me. The next year I applied to Ph.D. programs in Art History and was accepted to USC in Los AngelesI wrote my dissertation overlooking Robert Irwin’s garden at the Getty Research Institute, which is just about the best writing space I could imagine 

Q: What are some fond memories from your journey in the arts? 

A: I love being in the archives hunting for something good. And it’s been wonderful traveling to Spain, Belgium, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Florida, and even Houston (before I lived here) to do so. You don’t always know what you’re looking for, so I appreciate Robert Caro’s advice to “turn every page.” When you find it, it’s worth it!  

Q: Describe one thing that has surprised you during your career in higher education. 

A: Having artists as colleagues has been one of the best surprises – I did both my undergrad and graduate studies at universities where Art and Art History were separate departments. It has been so enriching to think collectively about art with the stellar faculty in the School of Art - artists and art historians. Often this happens during crits, or at a visiting lecture, but also over coffee or cocktails 

Q: What accomplishments in your career do you feel most proud of? 

A: My first book, Consuming Surrealism in American Culture, offered an entirely new perspective of Surrealism in the United States – especially focusing on its rollercoaster reputation as a massively popular avant-garde movement. When I got invited to a scholarly conference in Paris based on my Surrealism research I was really thrilled. I couldn’t believe someone other than my parents had read the book. 

Q: What specific skills or ideas, which you have cultivated in your area of expertise, do you find valuable in your career now?  

A: I’ve been interested in the reception of art for a long time – how audiences engaged with artworks, and how art circulated either in museums, or magazines, world’s fairs or window displays, or any of the myriad places people encounter art. Thinking about how visual work operates in the world constantly opens up fresh avenues of inquiryespecially now as our forms of discourse are increasingly mediated by images thanks to the internet.  

Q: What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor? 

A: Being open to new experiences and perspectives. I am constantly learning from my students just as I hope they learn from me.  

Q: What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments? 

A: In 2012, I was on the tenure track and expecting my first child. At the time, the University of Houston didn’t offer parental leave. I applied to and was awarded a full-year Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to work on my book. It was a professional honor, but also a personal gift to be able to focus on my research while caring for my baby. 

Q: Has there been any press coverage that you would like to share? If so, list links in your answer with any helpful descriptions. 

A: My co-edited anthology on MoMA’s experimental early years came out in 2020 and I was grateful to the Menil Collection for hosting a talk in conjunction with the book’s publication. The talk is available on the Menil’s Youtube Channel. 

Q: What is coming up for you in the future that we should watch for? 

A: Last year, I was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work on my next book project, which examines modern art museums at mid-century during what I call an ‘architectural arms race.’ This moment is particularly interesting because modern museums, bolstered by aggressive architectural expansionwere at the forefront of a new kind of culture campaign during the Cold War period. My book will chart how modern art museums successfully legitimized modern art by staking out a canonbut one based on claims to universality that paradoxically undermined modern art’s potency as a socio-political tool. Today, as museums acknowledge the need to re-imagine their institutions from the ground up, they are responding to this earlier moment, when the canon was still in flux and the modern art museum’s role as a socio-cultural interlocuter was not yet fully established, expected or accepted.  

Q: What advice would you have for incoming students who are focusing on a career in the arts? 

A: Only one professor during my undergrad told me it would be difficult to find a job as an art historian. She was right and I’m grateful that she didn’t pretend it was easy. That said, we’ve had amazing students at UH get amazing jobs and I am incredibly proud of our alums. It’s a roll of the dice