Karen Koehler

Professor of Architectural and Art History

Karen Koehler is a professor of art history and 2016 recipient of Hampshire's Gruber Award for Excellence in Advising. Koehler teaches courses in modern and contemporary art, architecture, photography, and design, with an emphasis on connections between the built environment, visual culture, and critical theory. She received her B.A. in English literature and M.S. in library science from the University of Illinois, her master's in art history from the University of Massachusetts, and an M.F.A and Ph.D. in art and archaeology from Princeton University.

In addition to her edited volume The Built Surface: Architecture and the Pictorial Arts, she has published widely on dialogues between architecture and pictures, including an essay on Louise Bourgeois, architecture and autobiography for a special edition of Art in Translation, which she also co-edited with Jeffrey Saletnik, on "Translation and Architecture" (March 2018).

In 2008, Koehler served as guest curator and sole author of "Bauhaus Modern," an exhibition and catalogue at the Smith College Museum of Art. Other recent publications on the Bauhaus include catalogue essays for the Prada Foundation in Milan and the Gallery of New South Wales, as well as an essay on the Bauhaus and Gestalt in Joseph Albers: Intersecting Colors at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, and a forthcoming essay on "Bauhaus Doubles" for Bauhaus Bodies, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.

Recipient of recent grants from the NEH, Mellon, and Kress and Graham Foundations, Koehler is currently completing an intellectual history of the architect Walter Gropius for Reaktion Books (distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press), a project for which she received a senior fellowship from the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery in Washington.

Recent and Upcoming Courses

  • This course is an examination of visionary plans in architecture and art, including the works of C-N Ledoux, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Wassily Kandinsky, and others. The course begins with an examination of significant literary utopias, including the books by Sir Thomas More and William Morris, and we conclude with a work by Octavia Butler. We will consider the philosophical constructs of utopia in architectural drawings, buildings, and plans as well as in film, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts. We will consider how different projections about life in the future are also harsh criticisms of the present, which often rely upon imagined views of social organizations in times past. We will examine the relationship of the individual to the community, and consider how spatial constructions - real and imagined - can affect this relationship. We examine the tensions between theory and practice, by studying the successes and failures of actual attempts at utopian communities. We will conclude with the question of whether utopian design is imaginable in the 21st century. keywords: Art, architecture, literature, history, philosophy

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  • This seminar is based on a close, comparative reading of the critical theorist Walter Benjamin, the artist Paul Klee and the filmmaker Wim Wenders. Linking history, tragedy, desire and hope to the figures of the angel, the ghost, the puppet, the trapeze artist, and the automaton, these three authors open up an examination of materiality, abstraction, representation, the seen and the unseen, the purposeful, the ephemeral, the accidental, the heartbreaking and the playful. Their comparative treatments of cities, arcades, towers and streets will also be used to explore both the sensations of place and the operations of memory in images, texts, artifacts, and in architecture. Students will create a series of artworks, creative texts, critical reviews and analytical essays. (keywords: art history, art, architectural studies, history, film studies, critical theory, criticism, memory)

  • This course is a selective study of the institutions of museums and archives. In a seminar format we will read and discuss a small number of theoretical essays, both canonical and non-canonical, that will help us explore why engaging with the collecting of artworks and the storage of documents have become central for contemporary thought and artistic practice. Our inquiries will range from the Wunderkammer and the imperialist origins of museums to the place of archives in contemporary art practices. Occasional guest speakers from museums and archives will join us (in Zoom meetings, and perhaps in person) as we debate issues of decolonization and provenance; the artist as curator and the curator as artist; questions of reproduction and the copy; and the place of memory studies in archives and museums today. Students will be responsible for a rigorous independent research project, culminating in a curatorial or archival project. (keywords: museums, art history, literature, archives)