What to do with the “Most Modern” Artworks? Erwin Panofsky and the Art History of Contemporary Art


  • Flora Lysen University of Amsterdam




contemporaneity, history, historiography, panofsky, barr, exil-geschichte


In the 1930s, when the world-renowned Medieval and Renaissance art scholar Erwin Panofsky became acquainted with the New York contemporary art scene, he was challenged with the most difficult dilemma for art historians. How could Panofsky, who was firmly entrenched in the kunstwissenschaftliche study of art, use his historical methods for the scholarly research of contemporary art? Can art historians deal with the art objects of their own time? This urgent and still current question of how to think about “contemporaneity” in relation to art history is the main topic of this paper, which departs from Panofsky’s 1934 review of a book on modern art. In his review of James Johnson Sweeny’s book Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting, Panofsky’s praise for Sweeney’s scholarly “distance” from contemporary art developments in Europe is backed by a claim for America’s cultural distance, rather than a (historical) removal in time. Taking a closer look at Panofsky’s conflation of historical/temporal distance with geographical/cultural distance, this paper demonstrates a politically situated discourse on contemporaneity, in which Panofsky proposes the act of writing about the contemporary as a redemptive act, albeit, as this paper will demonstrate, without being able to follow his own scientific method.


Author Biography

Flora Lysen, University of Amsterdam

Flora Lysen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.





How to Cite

Lysen, F. (2014). What to do with the “Most Modern” Artworks? Erwin Panofsky and the Art History of Contemporary Art. Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, 3, 38–49. https://doi.org/10.5195/contemp.2014.81