Dr. phil. Vera Wolff

Visiting scholar

Vera Wolff is an art historian and historian of science. At the KHI she works on a materialist art history of globalization and on a book that deals with the artistic engagement with Cold War history of science and technology.

Vera studied art history, modern German literature and philosophy. She worked as a research associate in the German Research Foundation project to set up an "Archive for the Research of Material Iconography" at the Kunstgeschichtliche Seminar at Universität Hamburg, where she also received her Ph.D. in 2012 with a thesis supported by a fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung (Die Rache des Materials. Eine andere Geschichte des Japonismus, Diaphanes Verlag 2015/The Material's Revenge. A Diverse History of Japonism). She was a member of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research "Iconic Criticism eikones" based at Universität Basel and ETH Zurich (from 2011 to 2013 in the module "Perception, Implicit Iconic Knowledge, and Cognition", from 2015 to 2016 in the module "Augenarbeit. Visual Performance and Visual Design"). In 2014/15 she was a research fellow at the Internationale Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften in Vienna. From 2016 to 2019 she has been assistant professor at ETH Zurich's Chair of Science Studies. Since 2015 she is an associate member of Zurich's Center "History of Knowledge".

  • Art history and history of knowledge in the global context
  • Processes of cultural translation between East Asia, Europe, and the United States
  • History and theory of materials, techniques, and artistic labor
  • Science, industry, and art from modern to contemporary times
  • Material iconography
  • History of perception

The Art of the Cold War

Most commonly it is the cultural-political instrumentalization of the opposition between realism and abstraction that is considered to determine and define the art of the Cold War period. The project sketched out here deviates from this well-established perspective. In order to better understand what the art of the Cold War was, it examines the visual arts' relationship to and its engagement with contemporary history of science and technology, while also questioning the transnational conditions of what "the West" promised to be after 1945. The project seeks out the historical thought collectives in which the cultural and media-techniques that would give distinction to the epoch were put to the test, legitimized and critically reflected upon. Object of the analysis is the "practical aesthetics" of the scientifically informed art for the new age, which came to be known as the "technical", the "atomic" or that of information and knowledge. Scientific institutions and industry made great efforts to promote the arts during the Cold War period. Contemporaries in the United States, Western Europe, South America, and Japan hoped that the exchange and patronage relationships established at that time would create a modern form of "freedom of court", render possible a new renaissance and eventually produce a new type of artist. The book that results from the project closely describes the mixture of freedom and dependence realized in the cooperation between science, industry, and art which led to a redefinition of artistic labor in relation to (post)-industrial work and scientific research.


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