Encounters: An Introduction

Multicolored abstract painting that resembles spinning wheel and gears
Detail of Al Held, Padua II, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 213.36 × 213.36 cm (photograph provided by the Al Held Foundation and White Cube)

Encounters: An Introduction
Curated by Peter Benson Miller

In celebration of the Academy’s 125th anniversary, Encounters investigates the enduring impact of the city of Rome as a dynamic creative laboratory via a series of interdisciplinary exchanges. Spanning from the immediate post–World War II period to the present day, the results of these collaborations were not always immediately apparent, but their impact continues to resonate throughout the arts and the humanities in the United States and around the world.

This exhibition, articulated in two parts, highlights specific examples of collaboration, a central aspect of the Academy’s mission, demonstrating the interplay between visual art, musical composition, literature, and architecture set against, interpreting, and engaging monuments and urban space in Rome and elsewhere in Italy.

The exhibition traces, in particular, how these encounters have contributed to the development of several distinct strains of abstraction. Emerging from conceptions of city, space, society, and history, and employing differing perspectives and techniques such as collage and the imaginary interpretation of architecture, these strains, expressed in a range of separate but interconnected media, owe a great deal to the unique intellectual and creative atmosphere at the American Academy in Rome.

Collective projects at the Academy today carry on in an informal manner a significant aspect of the compulsory curriculum established not long after the institution was founded. Initially, the “Collaborative Problem,” requiring architects, painters, and sculptors to work together on an assigned project, was an unstructured exercise evaluated by the director in Rome. The Academy created an official competition after the First World War to encourage Fellows in their formative period to develop architecture in all its forms “vivified by the sister arts of painting and sculpture.”[1] “Collaboration among the artists is regarded by the Academy as being fundamental,” declared a 1922 report of the Executive Committee, “and it is planned in the future to have collaborative problems executed, in which the representatives of each of the arts may take the lead in turn.”[2]

Reforms carried out by Director Laurance P. Roberts after World War Two eliminated the curriculum, including the “Collaborative Problem,” giving Fellows greater freedom to pursue individual endeavors. These measures also brought women and African Americans to the School of Fine Arts at the Academy for the first time.[3] Yet, while it dispensed with the formal requirement, the postwar Academy continued to “encourage and foster” collaborative work. During his Residency in 1954–55, for example, Milan architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers “supervised a collaborative project for the fine arts fellows.” On that occasion, a group including Robert Venturi (1956 Fellow, 1966 Resident) developed a plan to create more studios in what is now the Bass Garden.[4] To this day, through the annual Fellows exhibition and other, less structured initiatives, Fellows continue to work together on interdisciplinary projects.

The first part of the exhibition was held in the Academy gallery this past fall and is now converted to an online format. Encounters I: Abstracting Rome identifies the abstracting techniques resulting from three collaborative efforts nurtured by the unstructured, fertile, and more diverse environment at the postwar Academy.

Encounters II: The Activist Gesture, presented here for the first time, traces how abstraction, what Julie Mehretu has termed “the activist gesture,” is employed in recent contemporary works responding to the climate of racial tension the United States and creating new paradigms for the future.

More Encounters

Please read Mark Robbins’s preface to the Encounters series to learn more about the project.

In fall 2019 Claudia Trezza spoke with curator Peter Benson Miller about his ideas for the exhibition, which investigates the enduring impact of the city of Rome as a dynamic creative laboratory through a series of interdisciplinary exchanges.


1. C. G. La Farge, “Educational Plan,” History of the American Academy in Rome (New York, 1920), 12–13. On the “Collaborative Problem,” see Fikret K. Yugül, Gentlemen of Instinct and Breeding: Architecture at the American Academy in Rome 1894–1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), especially 38–40 and 61–97.

2. C. Grant La Farge, “Report of the Executive Committee for the Year Ending December 5, 1922,” American Academy in Rome, Annual Report 1921–1922, 17.

3. Composer Ulysses Kay (1952 Fellow), sculptor John Rhoden (1954 Fellow), and writer Ralph Ellison (1957 Fellow). Sculptor Concetta Scaravaglione (1950 Fellow) was the first woman to receive a Rome Prize Fellowship in the visual arts.

4. Denise R. Costanzo, “‘A Truly Liberal Orientation’: Laurance Roberts, Modern Architecture, and the Postwar American Academy in Rome,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 2 (June 2015): 237. Costanzo cites the American Academy in Rome Annual Report, 1954–55, 27–28.

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