2022 Indrani Saha

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Dedalus Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for 2022-2023 has been awarded to Indrani Saha, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for her dissertation The Spiritual Curation of American Modernism. The award carries a stipend of $25,000.

Ms. Saha’s dissertation explores how esoteric forms of Eastern spirituality infused formerly Protestant centers of culture to propel a twentieth-century embrace of radically abstract modern art. Her research spotlights Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 (1905-1917) and Intimate Gallery (1925-1929), Katherine Sophie Dreier’s Société Anonyme (1920-1950), and Hilla Rebay’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (1939-1952). These served as intermediaries that translated predominantly Eastern spiritual ideas into productive ways of being for supposedly “soulless” Americans. 

Ms. Saha examines collections inventories, written correspondences, lecture transcripts, and curatorial documents, as well as the spiritual manuals of these twentieth-century artists-turned-institution-builders. In doing so, she uncovers their shared ambition to direct American cultural evolution through a series of Theosophy-informed interventions. She employs the term “spiritual curation” to characterize the efforts of Stieglitz, Dreier, and Rebay. 

This dissertation offers a threefold reassessment of the relationship between spirituality and modern art in the context of New York City.  First, it recovers the attitudes and sentiments of those agents who distilled promises of higher consciousness into the commissions, display, circulation, and narration of non-objective art. Second, it articulates Stieglitz’s, Dreier’s, and Rebay’s strategies as agential moves extending beyond the singular artist to a larger set of cultural practices and intentions. Finally, this study reveals modern art’s contentiously chosen inheritances, and the consequences of its secular structuring and policing of the cultural imaginary.

Indrani Saha received her BA in Cognitive Aesthetics from Duke University. There, she investigated the intersection of neuroscience and art as a Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and as a member of the Bass Connections “Art, Vision, and the Brain” interdisciplinary research team. Her scholarship has been supported by the MIT Presidential Fellowship; the Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies; the Mellon Foundation; and the Social Science Research Council. 

 

Image (Background): Key to the Meaning of Colours (Frontispiece to Thought-forms), 1905. Color lithography. From the larger text: Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater. Thought-forms: How Ideas, Emotions and Events Manifest as Visible Auras. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1905. 

Image (Left): Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, “Museum of Non-Objective Painting,” advertisement, New York Herald Tribune, March 26, 1943.